Starbucks and Chick-fil-A are pioneering the future of drive-thru ordering

Starbucks barista drive thru COVID
Starbucks drive-thru. Photo by Jason Whitman/NurPhoto via Getty Images
  • Starbucks and Chick-fil-A both use video ordering and workers with tablets.
  • An analyst says the new tech is key to reducing drive-thru wait times.
  • Drive-thrus have become key for fast food companies during the pandemic.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Starbucks and Chick-fil-A both rely heavily on drive-thrus, and use video technology and handheld tablets to take orders.

Fast food and fast-casual brands across the country have optimized drive-thrus over the last year as they became crucial in the age of COVID-19. Drive-thru orders have grown across the fast-food industry since the pandemic closed many dining rooms.

McDonald’s, already a drive-thru heavy hitter with 25,000 worldwide, says that 70% of sales in top markets are from drive-thru orders. Even salad chain Sweetgreen is jumping on the trend. Starbucks and Chick-fil-A are two of the biggest drive-thru players, and they’ve adopted some similar strategies.

On-the-go orders, meaning drive-thru and pickup orders, made up 80% of Starbucks orders prior to the pandemic, Starbucks told Insider, and increased more than 10% over pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2021. Drive-thrus have been up industry-wide because they are perceived as a “safe way to use the brand” Kalinowski Equity Research founder Mark Kalinowski told Insider. 

Starbucks baristas can also take orders through digital drive-thru screens, which the company says are installed at about 3,800 stores. Starbucks began rolling them out in 2015, and they use AI called “Deep Brew” to recommend food and drinks based on the weather and time of day.

The video ordering is a way Starbucks is “facilitating the barista-customer personal connection,” a spokesperson told Insider. The company is also rolling out handheld devices for baristas to input orders on. Starbucks says they are in 500 stores and were first implemented this past summer.

Starbucks smart screen
Starbucks barista. Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

While giving customers face time with baristas could certainly be a consideration, Kalinowski points to how these newer drive-thru technologies can minimize wait times in drive-thrus. “In a traditional drive-thru, there’s only one place an order can be taken,” he told Insider. “That creates huge bottlenecks,” compared to having mobile stations where customers can place orders.

Chick-fil-A is the most well-known example of applying this model. The chain stands out from the drive-thru crowd in large part thanks to its workers with iPads who take orders from cars even before they reach the window. At Chick-fil-A, ordering and delivery are “zones,” not set locations. 

Chick fil a drive thru

Chick-fil-A has also started taking orders virtually through a tablet. Chick-fil-A confirmed to Insider that this is essentially a tech-savvy twist on having workers walk out to take orders. The tablet allows customers to see workers face-to-face, without having to wait for them to reach the actual building.

“It allows the Team Member to stay inside, while still offering guests the friendly customer experience of a smiling Team Member,” Chick-fil-A told Insider in a statement.

The chicken brand’s drive-thrus can get so busy that they create traffic and even legal issues in some locations. Chick-fil-A has installed double drive-thru lanes at some locations, with plans to continue adding more. Starbucks says it is designing new drive-thru ideas, including double lanes, drive-thru-only stores, and drive-thru plus curbside pickup locations.

Quick service restaurants have “learned a lot in last 12 months with things they might never have tested without the pandemic” Kalinowski told Insider. “They’re still learning, so it should continue to get better.”

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