Mobile Ordering Brings New Prominence to the Drive-Thru

February 14, 2017         By: Steven Anderson

It wasn’t so long ago that a drive-thru window was the sign of a low-brow operation; fast food at its lowest was marked by a drive-thru window. Even legendary chef Gordon Ramsay mocked an Italian restaurant with a drive-thru window once, a place called Mangia Mangia.

With the arrival of mobile ordering, however, the drive-thru is taking on a new prominence as the primary order pickup point.

With 53 percent of all fast-food sales going through a drive-thru window, and drive-thru window values on the rise rapidly over the last few years in general, the fixture is indeed a valuable one. It’s also seeing a lot of use in unexpected directions; Starbird Chicken in California, for example, is combining the standard drive-thru window with some new mobile technology to produce a new experience.

While the option to eat in the Starbird Chicken facility is still intact, the drive-thru serves not only to allow users to place an order and wait for it, but rather as a clearinghouse to address all orders at once. Those using mobile ordering—and by extension mobile payment—processes can thus use the drive-thru window, or a curbside-to-go option, as a pickup payment point.

There’s a very real possibility that that pickup point will ultimately prove a bottleneck, with too many orders trying to be picked up through that one point. We’ve already seen how virtual orders can cram a physical order point with Starbucks; the idea that that same problem could happen to Starbird Chicken or Wendy’s or anyone else is perfectly rational.

In fact, it might be that the restaurant of tomorrow will have more than one drive-thru window to accommodate the increased online ordering. That may have a negative impact toward today’s drive-thru restaurants—expansion costs money—and for those who have no such facilities at all, it could be a particularly big problem. It’s bad news for one window, and a catastrophe for no windows.

As is the case with all discussions of the future, this could boil down in a variety of directions. Still, the idea that mobile ordering and mobile payments could prompt a renaissance in the drive-thru is a novel one, and not too easy to dismiss out of hand.