The future of restaurants is here in new fast food prototypes

When states closed dining rooms last year to fight the pandemic, restaurant executives went to the drawing board.

The industry had changed dramatically as a result of this event. The restaurant has disappeared. Drive-thru has become vital. Mobile orders exploded. Curbside pickup has found new life. Third-party delivery has gone from an experience to a necessity.

The restaurants themselves had to change to adapt to this new reality. More than two dozen major fast food chains, including fast food and fast food concepts, have introduced new prototypes in the past 15 months.

Each of the redesigns pushes the industry into the future, often pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a restaurant. They’re implementing more technology everywhere, increasing flexibility for operators, and bringing takeout and delivery to the forefront.

“He was born to create an avenue for franchisees to build and accelerate growth in this new normal environment,” Del Taco CEO John Cappasola said in a March episode of the catering company podcast “A Deeper Dive, talking about the channel’s ‘Fresh Flex’ prototype.

As a result, the restaurant you might visit next year will be very different from the restaurant you visited in 2019. Here’s a look at some of the differences you can expect.

Taco Bell 4 way driving

More drive-through lanes

Taco Bell is building the future of the industry in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park. The chain’s “Defy” prototype has not one, two or three lanes, but four, all under the restaurant.

Indeed, expect more than one lane to be much more common in the near future, taking cues from the playbooks rolled out by McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A. And it’s not just fast food concepts. Fast-food chains like Portillo’s and Shake Shack provide multi-lane drive-thrus.

The trend even extends to the full-service sector. Famous Dave’s intends to use one in one of its new formats. Golden Corral, a buffet operation, is experimenting with a version.

Mobile control lanes

Chipotle started opening drive-thru lanes for mobile orders before the pandemic, calling them Chipotlanes. They’ve thrived, helping push more mobile orders, as the typical location now generates over $1 million in digital sales alone.

Now they are all over the industry prototypes. Taco Bell’s “Defy” prototype will have three. KFC, Burger King, McDonald’s and more are considering drive-thru lanes for mobile orders in an effort to give those customers the ability to get their food without getting in their car. Full-service chain Velvet Taco even tries this approach.

Smaller or non-existent dining rooms

With fewer fast food sales being consumed on-premises, it makes sense to make room for all those drive-thru lanes by getting rid of the dining room space or abandoning it altogether.

Portillo’s, known for its huge restaurants, is set to open its first Portillo pickup unit this winter in Joliet, Illinois. The new store is about half the size of a traditional unit, but will feature three drive-thru lanes for maximum convenience. Del Taco’s “Fresh Flex” design, meanwhile, includes non-dining options, much like McDonald’s redesign.

Conveyor belts and elevators

Today, most dual drive-thru have bottlenecks where consumers merge lanes to get their food at the same windows. McDonald’s and Burger King are considering a new idea to get food to the second lane and eliminate those bottlenecks: conveyor belts.

Taco Bell’s Defy Unit takes things one step further. The location completely elevates the kitchen and most routes pass below. The design uses a lift system to send food directly to customers in the drive-thru below.

Mc Donalds Drive Thru Technology

New command styles

Many of these prototypes also face the direct drive-thru challenge: connecting with customers. McDonald’s is testing automated order taking in its drive-thru using technology from Apprente, its recent acquisition. But it’s also testing technology that allows customers to identify themselves at the checkout window, which may allow for more seamless use of the chain’s loyalty program.

Taco Bell’s Defy prototype features digital check-in screens where mobile ordering customers scan their QR codes and then walk forward to get their food. This system also uses two-way audio and video so customers can interact directly with Taco Bell employees.

skip the line

Restaurants aren’t limiting their “skip the line” strategies for drive-thru. Many fast-food chains are developing customer pick-up stations that go beyond the typical Ikea shelving tactic in the dining room.

Panda Express is testing a program called “kiosk in a pocket” that allows diners to skip the line when ordering through their in-store app. And McAlister’s Deli also allows diners to bypass the line when ordering through the app from the dining room.

Curbside on steroids

Curbside service was almost a side project before the pandemic. Since then, it has become a major part of the development strategies of many brands. Chain prototypes often include lots of curbside parking.

Many brands, such as Panera Bread, have combined curbside service with geofencing technology in their apps to alert workers to the customer’s presence. Taco Bell even gave the workers who serve customers at the curb a name: Bell Hops.

Sonic prototype

No dining area? No problem

With all these fancy restaurants with built-in technology, customers will need a place to eat. As restaurants reduce their dining areas, they are also providing other options for customers.

Sonic, traditionally a drive-thru chain with no indoor seating, anyway, is offering a patio in its new prototype for drive-thru patrons, complete with string lights and patio tables and umbrellas. At Del Taco, its Fresh Flex prototype offers customers specific parking areas, where they can dine in their car.

Link Restaurant of the Future

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