7 Groundbreaking Drive-Thru Concepts and Trends for QSRs in 2024

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What’s Propelling Restaurant Drive-Thru Innovations?

The first-ever restaurant drive-thru concept was launched way back in 1947. Red’s Giant Hamburg drive-thru allowed customers to drive up to a window to place orders and receive their food. Since then drive-thrus have consistently delivered a significant chunk of the revenue in the QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) category.

COVID-19 has accelerated the need for restaurants to have a comprehensive drive-thru strategy in place and focus on drive-thru innovation. This was primarily driven by:

  1. Heightened anxiety about health and safety
  2. Need for greater convenience and flexibility to order food

By the end of 2021, every major restaurant brand reported significant drive-through sales growth and drive-thru accounted for 52% of the customer traffic share for QSRs.

This trend is not just restricted to QSRs. Even full-service chains, cafes, and pizzerias that have traditionally invested in dine-in spaces are expanding drive-thru options for customers. Recently, Applebees revealed that they are planning to aggressively roll out drive-thrus to strengthen off-premise service capability.

5 Groundbreaking Drive-Thru Concepts and Trends for QSRs in 2022
Applebee’s is betting big on drive-thrus
Source: Dine Brands Global, Inc.
Restaurant brands are now investing in a suite of technology solutions and drive-thru concepts that delivers an amazing customer experience across the customer engagement lifecycle for the drive-thru channel.

Speed of Service

  • Upgraded online and mobile ordering
  • AI-driven digital menu and order confirmation boards
  • Bluetooth sensors and mobile apps for personalized drive-thru experience
  • Diverse mobile and online payment options
  • Dynamic menu and menu rationalization based on complexity and inventory
  • Kitchen automation

Employee Interaction

  • Gamification to improve employee engagement
  • Video management systems to access customer interaction videos for training
  • POS with forced prompts or modifiers to upsell related items or premium toppings
  • Automated check-in alerts for employees to serve customers with pre-orders

Order Accuracy

  • Computervision to track order assembly and packaging
  • Advanced speakers and microphones with noise suppression technology
  • Secure identity validation at drive-thru pickup window

In 2024, having a drive-thru is no longer a secondary growth strategy. QSRs that had already bet big on drive-thru services are now accelerating drive-thru automation to tackle one of the biggest challenges to running a profitable restaurant – wage and commodity inflation.

1. Expanded Drive-Thru Lanes

In June 2022, Taco Bell launched the Taco Bell Defy which boasts of four drive-thru lanes, food delivery lifts that eliminate direct contact between customers and employees, and interactive audio-video technology for customer service. Separate drive-thru lanes for app pre-orders, drive-in customers, and third-party delivery agents allow Taco Bell to maximize the speed of service and minimize wait times.
Taco Bells Defy drive-thru concept with four drive-thru lanes
Taco Bell’s Defy drive-thru concept with four drive-thru lanes.
Source: Taco Bell

Brands like Panera, McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC are rolling out updated restaurant designs with increased drive-thru capacity and smaller dine-in areas.

Adding additional lanes is not the only option to increase drive-thru throughput. Tim Hortons has launched tandem drive-thrus that come with two sets of digital menu boards and intercom in a single lane designed to take orders from two cars at a time.
Tim Hortons drive-thru concept can serve two cars at a time. Source: Tim Hortons
Tim Hortons drive-thru concept can serve two cars at a time.
Source: Tim Hortons

Adding additional drive-thru lanes can be challenging as restaurants have to proactively address points of customer friction, manage traffic volumes, and enable seamless integration with POS systems.

Here is an extract from an article that summarizes the real-world challenges that Schlotzsky’s experienced when they piloted a double-drive-thru, with one drive-thru on each side of the restaurant.
Schlotzsky’s double-drive-thru pilot program Source: Schlotzskys.com
Schlotzsky’s double-drive-thru pilot program
Source: Schlotzskys.com

“When you have two menu boards where you’re taking orders at the same time, we really had to figure out how that flows through into our kitchen. And when two menu boards are taking orders at the same time, we had to equip our drive-thru make station with a headset so that they could listen to both the first drive-thru lane and the second drive-thru lane, and start the production of those products before the guests finished ordering.”

“In the early days of launching this double drive-thru, Schlotzsky’s employees had to train customers that were going to the pickup lane because the service counter is now on the passenger side, which is not what customers are used to. The store needed to go back and modify signage and striping on the asphalt to make directional flow clear to customers and improve traffic confusion.”

2. Intelligent Outdoor Digital Menu Boards (ODMBs)

Outdoor digital menu boards play a critical role in helping drive-thru customers make an informed choice of what to order and speed up the drive-thru experience. The latest generation of digital menu boards are connected to the cloud and have the ability to dynamically change the menu and pricing based on diverse input from other restaurant applications.
Acrelec’s Outdoor Digital Menu Boards uses AI to offer personalized menu boards. Source: Acrelec.com
Acrelec’s Outdoor Digital Menu Boards uses AI to offer personalized menu boards.
Source: Acrelec.com

Some of the recent innovations in personalizing the drive-thru experience include

  • Digital menu boards linked to mobile apps that rely on the phone’s location data to trigger menu board personalization when the customer drives up to the restaurant location.
  • Speciality Bluetooth devices integrated with the drive-thru speaker post to trigger menu board personalization, enable the customer to redeem reward points, and make payments using their mobile phone.
  • Machine learning-driven menu boards not only suggest a personalized menu based on the purchase history, external factors (such as the weather), or daypart, but also optimize the menu to eliminate order processing complexity.

McDonald’s implemented Dynamic Yield’s personalization platform to offer a dynamic menu at their drive-thrus. In the US, McDonald’s is able to show menu items based on factors such as time of day, real-time restaurant traffic information, and popularity to help provide an enhanced customer experience.

Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of QSR brands such as Burger King, Tim Hortons, and Popeyes had already started rolling out personalized ODMBs in 2021 across thousands of locations.
ODMBs can now show personalized menus and recommendations for repeat customers Source: Restaurants Brands International
ODMBs can now show personalized menus and recommendations for repeat customers
Source: Restaurants Brands International

3. Gamification for Drive-Thru Employees

Serving customers at the drive-thru can get monotonous for employees. Critical performance metrics such as average speed of service and order value are reviewed periodically by the manager or supervisor and employees get to hear about it only when they fall short of the productivity benchmarks or for training purposes. Gamification of drive-thru tasks addresses this problem and significantly improves employee participation and engagement.
HME’s ZOOM Nitro’s drive-thru optimization system allows restaurants to gamify drive-thru service for engaging employees. Source

HME’s ZOOM Nitro’s drive-thru optimization system allows restaurants to gamify drive-thru service for engaging employees.


Here are some of the ways gamification can improve employee engagement and productivity:

  1. Drive-thru leader boards can show where employees stand compared to their colleagues and introduce a positive competitive spirit at work.
  2. Restaurant chains can conduct friendly contests between locations with bragging rights and offer rewards as an upside for top-performing locations.
  3. As critical metrics are now transparent and available for all employees in real-time, employees readily take ownership of performance improvement plans.

I3 International’s drive-thru leaderboards offer real-time performance snapshots of drive-thru employees giving employees and restaurant managers a live drive-thru customer service performance update.

i3 International’s video analytics solution includes a drive-thru leaderboard for employees Source: i3 International
i3 International’s video analytics solution includes a drive-thru leaderboard for employees
Source: i3 International

4. Computer Vision and Video Analytics at the Drive-Thru

Video feeds from the cameras in the drive-thru area can be analyzed by computer vision algorithms in real-time to improve sales, improve order accuracy, reduce chargeback claims, flag food safety issues, and track line dropouts before purchase.

  1. Computer vision can read license plates of cars and even identify the age profile of the occupants inside the car. This data is useful to recognize repeat customers and show a personalized menu or offer exclusive perks as the customer pulls into the drive-thru digital menu post.

I3 Internation’s video analytics platform can recognize repeat customers by reading the number plates of cars at the drive-thru. Once a repeat customer is identified, the platform will automatically display relevant information to the employees at the drive-thru to recommend favorite products and offer a personalized guest experience.
Video cameras can identify repeat customers at the drive-thru by reading the registration plates Source: i3 International

Video cameras can identify repeat customers at the drive-thru by reading the registration plates

Source: i3 International

2. Ensuring order accuracy has a direct impact on sales performance and customer loyalty. Computer vision and AI applications connected to cameras in the kitchen can pinpoint mismatches in order assembly before the items are delivered to the customer.

3. In addition to identifying customers, computer vision can track drive-thru line dropout data. This information when mapped to dayparts, locations, weather, and day of the week can uncover valuable insights for QSRs. These insights can help restaurants optimize menu complexity and staffing, or even re-design the drive-thru lanes.

Presto Vision’s software allows restaurants to improve drive-thru sales and delight customers

Presto Vision’s software allows restaurants to improve drive-thru sales and delight customers.

4. A Deloitte study has found that customers are willing to pay a premium if they can see evidence of cleanliness and safe food handling practices. Computer vision and AI applications can spot instances when prescribed food preparation and handling processes are not followed so restaurants can train their employees better and ensure complete safety compliance.

5. AI-Based Voice Assistance

Voice is a critical component of the drive-thru customer experience, and hence more QSRs are investing in installing advanced two-way audio communication systems at the drive-thrus that are designed to

  • Reduce outbound (kitchen noise) and inbound noise (traffic or engine sounds), to improve order accuracy and eliminate delays due to miscommunication or poorly understood order details.
  • Use automated audio alerts for employees to manage customers at the drive-thru, curbside pickup slots, or 3rd-party delivery pickups.

With AI-enabled voice technology, voice can now go beyond just improving communication. It can potentially reduce the need for employees to handle all the drive-thru transactions. This is especially useful in a tough labor market where staffing and retention are significant challenges confronting QSRs. Here are the various ways AI-enabled voice automation is being used by QSRs and fast-casual restaurants.

  • Chipotle had already rolled-out Amazon Alexa reordering skill way back in 2019 for Chipotle customers who are already a part of the loyalty program. They later expanded AI-based voice ordering for phone orders as well. With the recent roll-out of dedicated drive-thru pick-up windows (aka Chipotlanes), Chipotle customers who order ahead using voice or app can drive up to the pickup window and drive out in under 12 seconds.
  • In 2019, McDonald’s acquired Apprente, an AI-based technology that can engage in conversations with humans to improve drive-thru order accuracy. McDonald’s piloted the technology in 2021 at 24 drive-thrus in the Chicago area and reported about an 80% success rate. The technology is being further tested and upgraded with the help of IBM before a system-wide roll-out.
  • Wendy’s is leveraging Google Cloud to roll out a combination of AI-enabled voice technology along with computer vision that’s designed to take orders at the drive-thrus and send the transcribed order details directly to the kitchen and POS.

Presto claims to offer AI-enabled conversational technology that can only take drive-thru orders but also upsell, recommend items with shorter preparation time, and recommend items based on past orders. The Presto voice solution has diverse applications that go beyond drive-thru. These include inventory management, phone orders, tableside ordering, and staff training.

6. Automated Drive-Thru For App Orders

“McDonald’s is piloting a drive-thru concept that completely eliminates the need to have any customer-facing staff. Customers who choose to dine in, place orders via self-service kiosks, and robots bring the order from the kitchen. For those who want to use the drive-thru, the only option available is by ordering ahead via the app.

When customers order ahead via the McDonald’s app with push notifications enabled and location access turned on, food preparation is timed to the customer’s estimated pick-up time. Once the customer reaches the restaurant, they pull into the order ahead drive-thru lane to pick up their order that’s delivered via conveyor belt.

Order Ahead Drive-Thru at McDonald's

McDonald’s is piloting an automated order ahead drive-thru lane at one of their Texas locations.

Source: McDonald’s

The concept of ordering ahead and picking up at a special lane at the drive-thru is not a new concept. What’s novel with the McDonald’s location is the absence of customer-facing employees. As hiring for restaurant jobs and retaining employees becomes tougher, and wage inflation going through the roof, a conveyor belt bringing the order directly from the kitchen to the drive-through pickup point could probably become a mainstream solution.

7. Restaurant Robotics & Future Contactless Drive-Thru

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) paints a grim view of the labor shortages that continue to plague the restaurant industry in the US. According to NRA, “Despite the steady employment gains during the last 2 years, eating and drinking places are still 450,000 jobs (or 3.6%) below their pre-pandemic staffing levels. That’s the largest employment deficit among all U.S. industries.” To combat this challenge, some restaurants have already started deploying robots not only for kitchen automation but also for customer service. It’s just a matter of time before drive-thru customers have an entirely contactless experience when kitchen automation and service automation technologies mature.

A new crop of restaurant robot companies have all graduated their products from the design or prototyping phase to deployment at restaurants. 

  • Robotic Arms – Ally, Nala, Miso
  • Bartender Robots – Makr Shakr, Cecilia.ai
  • Bowls and Salad Maker Robots – Chowbotics, Spice, Beastro, Autec
  • Food Delivery Robots – Starship, Neuro, Kiwibot
  • Robot Waiters – Bellabot, Matradee, Servirobot
  • Pizza Robots – Picnic, Piestro, Zume
  • Coffee Shops – Cafex, Rozum, Artly, CookRight

Prominent restaurant brands are piloting robots or have already deployed them in the first set of locations. 

Sweetgreen launched its Infinite Kitchen technology at its Naperville, Illinois restaurant which leverages automation to dispense greens and other ingredients precisely in bowls moving along in an assembly line.

Other established restaurant brands such as Chipotle, White Castle, and Wing Zone have all deployed Flippy, a kitchen robot that automates fast food preparation. 

 New restaurant brands are launching in 2024 that have embraced an automation-first strategy. For example, Steve Ells, the former CEO of Chipotle is launching a new chain named “Kernel” in the New York area in 2024. Every location will have just 3 employees supported by robots.

We expect these technologies to find a way to the drive-thru in late 2024 or in 2025 as the technology is perfected and real-world ROI is established.

Groundwork Needed for Drive-Thru Innovation

There are some critical issues in the QSR industry that can potentially derail new drive-thru initiatives. Interface recommends restaurant brands to carefully consider some of these challenges proactively before expanding drive-thru operations.

1. Network Capacity

Designing the physical space and logistics of managing the traffic often takes center stage in drive-thru design while the network side of the solution may take a backseat. Network design and capacity to support mobile POS transactions, sophisticated IP cameras with edge computing capabilities, intelligent ODMBs, order confirmation systems, and perimeter security sensors (such as alarm systems) play a critical role in the successful implementation of cutting-edge drive-thru concepts.

2. Network Security

Personalized drive-thru experiences are enabled only when customers share personal data and convenience is possible only when diverse payment options are supported. As a result, drive-thru concepts have opened up a world of network security vulnerabilities that need to be addressed upfront.

3. Accidents and Claims

Even successful drive-thru concepts have a problem – too many drive-thru customers and spill-over vehicle queues that potentially disrupt neighboring businesses or cause ‘drive-thru rage’. Collisions, liability claims, and employee injury (especially when walking up to cars in the drive-thru lane as done by some QSRs like Chick-fil-A) are potential issues to watch for.

4. Backend Bottlenecks

Considering the success of a drive-thru implementation is contingent on the speed of service and order accuracy, getting the kitchen operations right is an absolute necessity. Integrated kitchen display systems that are connected to the POS and inventory management system can help QSRs handle the increased order volume reliably.

5. Operational Complexity

According to the Franchising Economic Outlook report, the US will have about 192,000 franchise QSR establishments by the end of 2022. While the franchising model offers a proven brand and template for growth, key network and security infrastructure are managed by the franchise owners. This creates operational complexity as standards of implementation and solutions may vary across the chain which imposes barriers to innovation.

Innovate Fearlessly and Change Gears with Confidence

Interface experts are ready to help you streamline drive-thru operations.

About the Author

Steve has a passion for simplifying the complex. He has been designing and supporting secure network infrastructure solutions for distributed enterprise brands for the past 17 years. His current mission at Interface Security Systems is to ensure customer solutions are built with the highest levels of security and performance with an overarching theme of standardization and scalability. 

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