Why we won’t see Starbucks kill off menu items to speed up service like nearly every other drive-thru restaurant

Starbucks barista drinks
  • Starbucks continues to expand its menu as other drive-thru competitors cut back.
  • Customization is more important than speed to the Starbucks experience, according to an analyst.
  • Starbucks is focusing on reducing bottlenecks in drive-thrus instead.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Drive-thrus are becoming increasingly important for fast food and quick-service restaurants, and some of the most successful have slimmed down menus significantly over the last year. Starbucks, unlike its competition, continues to add to the menu with no signs of cutting it back.

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.

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Companies that rely on drive-thru business have cut items from menus and consolidated size options to make the drive-thru experience faster, Kalinowski says, for example Chick-fil-A removed decaf hot coffee from menus and narrowed options for coffee sizes.

While slimmer menus are the way drive-thru menus are trending, Kalinowski says he doesn’t expect that from Starbucks. “They have a ton of customization, and that’s not going away. They believe it’s a strength” he told Insider.

Customers generally don’t expect Starbucks to be as speedy as Wendy’s or McDonald’s, because they’re offering fundamentally different things. In 2020, Starbucks lagged behind coffee competitor Dunkin’ in terms of speed, according to QSR’s annual drive-thru study. While Starbucks is working to make drive-thrus more efficient, it isn’t trying to be the fastest drive-thru around, Kalinowski says. “Customization is much more meaningful for Starbucks,” he says, even if it means slightly longer waits.

Starbucks is actually expanding menus right now, most recently with the addition of oat milk and new drinks that incorporate it. With every new product announcement, Starbucks encourages customers to customize it with different milks, syrups, cold foam, and thousands of other potential combinations, sometimes to the chagrin of baristas.

Starbucks has no plans to pare down menus, although available drinks change seasonally, a spokesperson told Insider on a phone call.

Other fast-food chains have cut menus since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to keep up with supply chain changes, customer desires, and to make drive-thru waits shorter. McDonald’s discontinued all-day breakfast, salads, grilled chicken sandwiches, and chicken tenders in March to “simplify operations in our kitchens and for our crew,” Insider reported last spring.

Taco Bell cut more than a dozen items in 2020, including fan favorites like the seven-layer burrito and Mexican pizza. Despite outcry from fans last year, the leaner menu proved to be a smart decision as the chain shifted to more drive-thru orders, and sales grew 5% in the quarter following the menu change.

Starbucks is still making efforts to improve drive-thru efficiency, just not through cutting menus. Baristas can 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 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. Kalinowski says 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.

Starbucks says it is designing new drive-thru ideas, including double lanes, drive-thru-only stores, and drive-thru plus curbside pickup locations. After learning from experience during the pandemic, drive-thrus will likely continue to get better, Kalinowski says.