During the coronavirus pandemic in New York City on April 14, 2020, a closed sign hangs on the door with a view of the empty restaurant.

Rob Kim | Getty Images

In March last year, restaurant sales plummeted after governors banned personal eating and consumers began to process their deluge of food in stock. But after a few weeks a new trend set in, exemplified by long drive-through lines winding around the perimeter of the fast food locations.

Checkers and Rally’s was one of the many fast food companies to benefit from the relocation. With more than 800 locations, it is the largest double-lane restaurant chain in the country.

“We had the greatest year last year,” said CEO Frances Allen. “We posted record sales in the same business and provided significant impetus.”

The crisis coincided with the revision of the menu by the chain and contributed to the revival of sales. To keep up with rising demand, about two-thirds of Checkers and Rally’s restaurants switched one of their drive-through lanes to handle digital orders and delivery orders.

After decades as a fast food staple, the thoroughfares became a superstar, helping fast food chain sales recover faster than their full-service brethren. By December, according to the NPD Group, 44% of off-premise orders across the restaurant industry were on thoroughfares. With vaccines becoming more prevalent in the United States, the popularity of drive-thru orders appears to have endured, although industry experts believe it will moderate some.

Florida, Brooksville, Chick-Fil-A, fast food chicken restaurant, down due to pandemic.

Jeff Greenberg | Universal Images Group | Getty Images

“I think if people get more vaccinated the drive-through will go down a bit, but I don’t think it will go down to previous levels because that heightened awareness of germs is going to stay here and some people are just used to doing things are doing differently now, “said Lisa van Kesteren, CEO of SeeLevel HX, which conducts an annual study on the drive-through service.

Adrianne, a 27-year-old who lives in Wichita, Kansas, agrees. She worked at a Starbucks with a thoroughfare for several months.

“Pre-ordering, delivery, and personal information can vary, but transit is an ongoing necessity,” she said.

Other drive-thru workers say the added stress of their job is unlikely to stop for many months. Randy, a 30-year-old who works in Michigan, said he wanted to quit his job often and that his location has a very high turnover rate. According to him, the focus has shifted from contacting customers to making sure orders were fulfilled in less than a minute.

According to SeeLevelHX’s 2020 study, conducted June through August using secret shoppers, higher volumes and larger orders slowed average transit times by 29.8 seconds. KFC, owned by Yum Brands, topped the list and was one of the few chains that managed to cut the times.

The chain’s U.S. President and Chief Concept Officer Kevin Hochman credited KFC’s family refill containers, which saw double-digit growth over the past year. Hochman also serves as the interim US president of Pizza Hut, the sister chain of KFC. In response to the ticket with the higher average price, KFC added a $ 30 offer to its menu to accommodate the trend of larger orders.

Vehicles are waiting in line in a Yum! Brands Inc. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Taco Bell Restaurant in Lockport, Illinois, USA

Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

“Packing a 12-piece bucket versus an 8-piece bucket is pretty darn easy compared to making eight sandwiches – it’s a whole different model,” Hochman said, adding that other fast food chains are now Meals of higher value add to their menus.

Hochman predicts that some drive-through crossings will return to KFC lobbies when consumers are vaccinated. The fried chicken chain is testing pick-up cubbies with the expectation that their customers will look for even faster ways to get their food in after the pandemic.

The move to drive-thru ordering has also further increased competition between the fast food and fast casual sectors. Chains like Sweetgreen and Shake Shack have announced plans to add drive-through lanes. Chipotle Mexican Grill, which had set up its thoroughfares for digital ordering only, said it would accelerate plans to add more “Chipotlanes” to its presence.

But even before the pandemic, fast food chains were investing in their thoroughfares and giving them the upper hand. McDonald’s spent more than $ 300 million on Dynamic Yield, an artificial intelligence company that would help the company encourage drive-through customers to spend more. (The company is currently considering the sale of Dynamic Yield’s third-party business.)

These investments to improve the efficiency of thoroughfare have only accelerated in the last year. Chains like KFC and Burger King from Restaurant Brands International have developed new restaurant formats that highlight the thoroughfare and downgrade to smaller dining rooms.

Burger King Next Level’s hanging kitchen above the thoroughfares

Source: Burger King

John Kelly, Arby’s chief operating officer, said the Inspire Brands chain had been working for the past three to five years to make its production more efficient. Many of his kitchens now work with two groups of workers putting together orders to keep up with the flow.

“We certainly didn’t upgrade all of our restaurants during Covid, there wasn’t enough time or manpower to do so, but we were already on our way and accelerated this in 2020,” said Kelly. “And we will continue to improve those in our restaurants, certainly where there is volume today, but also for the future.”

Van Kesteren pointed to automation as another big trend resulting from the increase in drive-through orders during the crisis. McDonald’s and White Castle are both testing artificial intelligence software with the aim of taking drive-thru orders faster and more accurately.

“Automation used to be studied and fully automated lanes and kiosks tested, but this has sped it up a lot,” she said.

Kelly said Arby’s is investing in technology that will help business owners be better informed how to occupy a restaurant when traffic fluctuates. During the busiest times of the pandemic, Arby’s had many of its restaurant employees focused on a single task, whether it be taking orders or filling drinks.

“So you don’t always try to catch up on where the business is going, you actually go ahead of it,” he said. “I think we learned a lot from it during Covid and we will continue to push that forward.”