Long lines of cars snaking to the drive-thru window at Dunkin’ and other quick-service restaurants are one of the few positives in an industry overall hit hard by pandemic-related closures or indoor seating limitations.
National chains including Dunkin’, KFC, Taco Bell and Chipotle Mexican Grill, McDonald’s and Burger King were quick to close most or all indoor dining areas when the coronavirus flared up in March. At the same time, they were well-positioned to quickly embrace existing drive-thru and takeout options than traditional dine-in restaurants, which scrambled to set up curbside pickup and delivery systems.
Some fast-food restaurants even plan to keep and expand pandemic innovations, including “contactless” locations that limit all personal interactions between customers and staff.
“Some operators like Chipotle have changed their entire business model to contactless pick up or delivery,” said Steve Hewins, CEO and president of HospitalMaine, an industry group based in Augusta.
Drive-thru windows, home delivery and other off-premises operations will be a major part of the U.S. quick-serve restaurant industry’s recovery and future, said David Portalatin, an adviser at food industry research company NPD Group in New York. The operations are safe and convenient and let restaurants bring in more revenue by serving more people.
NPD Group found that drive-thru restaurant visits increased by 26 percent in the April to June quarter of this year and made up 42 percent of all restaurant visits throughout the country. When more restaurants reopened in July, drive-thru visits still were up by 13 percent. The lines also increased the average wait time at drive-thrus by 30 seconds longer than last year, according to Atlanta-based research firm SeaLevel HX.
In a nod to growing drive-thru sales, Chipotle Mexican Grill opened its first Maine restaurant with a window in Auburn in mid-December. That sixth Chipotle restaurant is in a former Krispy Kreme location.
Chipotle is one of many restaurants that does not allow inside seating during the pandemic. It takes online reservations for pick up and delivers using outside services, including DoorDash and Uber.
The staff wear masks and get regular wellness checks, according to a service manager at the Bangor location. He said the restaurant also turns away customers not wearing masks.
The restaurant also opened its first Chipotle Digital Restaurant in Highland Falls, New York, in November that only allows pick up and delivery. The digital restaurants also are part of Chipotle’s strategy to build smaller locations in tight urban spaces. The company said digital sales tripled in the July through September quarter of this year, compared with the same time in 2019.
Burger King also announced new “touchless” pandemic-inspired restaurant designs in September. The restaurants will have drive-in areas under solar-powered canopies where customers can place orders using a Burger King app or QR code and have food delivered to their cars. They also will have a suspended kitchen and dining room above drive-thru lanes that will bring food via a conveyor belt to customers. The first of the new design restaurants are slated to be built in Miami, Latin America and the Caribbean in 2021.
“We took into consideration how consumer behaviors are changing and our guests will want to interact with our restaurants,” said Josh Kobza, chief operating officer at Restaurant Brands International, the holding company for Burger King.