- McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Chick-fil-A have changed their operations since the pandemic started.
- The drive-thru lane has been a lifeline to most fast-food chains.
- Taco Bell’s mobile-ordering option and contactless payments are likely to continue.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories .
Many fast-food restaurants have adopted possible strategies for getting through the coronavirus pandemic, which has drastically shifted how the dining industry functions.
Sanitizing tables, frequent employee hand-washing, and asking customers to wear masks inside are a few ways fast-food chains are shifting indoor dining. Other changes are evident when you stop by your favourite fast-food restaurants, such as more drive-thru lanes and encouraging customers to order ahead and pick up through their phone apps.
Here are 14 ways fast-food restaurants could be different even after the coronavirus pandemic ends.
Employees have been wearing gloves and masks, and this could stay even after the pandemic ends.
At the start of the pandemic, many fast-food chains immediately, including McDonald’s, began requiring employees to follow health and safety guidelines like mask-wearing and encouraging physical distancing between crew members and customers when possible.
While most chains will likely follow CDC and state guidelines on exactly how long after the pandemic “ends” it will require employees to wear masks, it’s also possible that COVID-era health measures aren’t going anywhere any time soon – even after more people get vaccinated.
“It’s going to be really hard for people to tell apart who has been vaccinated, who hasn’t, and who just isn’t wearing a mask because they don’t want to,” Shan Soe-Lin, Ph.D., a lecturer in global affairs at Yale University and epidemiologist told Today. “I would say that until the vaccine is widely available and case counts drop as you would expect with high vaccination coverage, we’ll be wearing masks.”
Similarly, customers could be told to wear masks inside restaurants into the future.
Masks are currently required to enter most businesses nationwide. In states where face masks are required, McDonald’s has offered to have face masks available for customers in those areas before they enter the building, as part of the restaurant’s reopening plan.
Experts also explain that even those who have been vaccinated should continue to wear masks until the effectiveness of the vaccine has been proven.
“I think people’s perception is you get the vaccine and you’re safe and finally we can stop all this masking and social distancing and stuff, but that’s not actually reality,” Debra Goff, an infectious-disease pharmacist and professor at the Ohio State University, told Insider’s Anna Medaris Miller.
Plastic barriers could be the norm at drive-thru windows and counters where orders are taken.
Many fast-food restaurants, from McDonald’s to Chick-fil-A to Dunkin’, have implemented plastic or glass barriers at point-of-sale stations like drive-thru windows and ordering counters.
It’s unclear when these barriers might be removed, or if they will be a mainstay long after the pandemic has subsided, for the same reasons as mask-wearing may still be required.
Self-serve soda dispensers could be phased out indefinitely at some fast-food restaurants.
According to the New York Post, Burger King, Popeye’s, and Tim Hortons locations switched off their self-serve soda dispensers after reopening last May.
“We have turned off our self-serve soda fountains and are offering beverages, extra condiments, and trays from the behind the front counter,” Jose Cil, chief executive at Restaurant Brands, which operates the three aforementioned chains, wrote in an open letter.
Cil stated that the company has “fully embraced the notion that parts of our restaurants need to change – certainly, for the foreseeable future and possibly forever.”
As of December 2020, the CDC’s considerations for restaurant and bar operators recommends establishments to “avoid offering any self-serve food or drink options, such as buffets, salad bars, and drink stations.”
Ordering kiosks and contactless payments could become even more prevalent.
Though one could argue that the constant touching of an ordering kiosk could heighten the spread of germs, this form of payment limits face-to-face, person-to-person contact. However, kiosks will need to be cleaned regularly.
One way fast-food restaurants could continue to operate in the near and distant future is with “contactless” ordering.
McDonald’s has implemented contactless pickup and delivery in China and internationally where customers place an order remotely by phone or through an in-store kiosk. Then, customers can pick up their orders from a designated area, without ever coming face-to-face with an employee.
Taco Bell is also implementing similar processes.
“Our research shows that consumer behaviours changing today that make life easier and safer will be the behaviours that carry into the future, like delivery and mobile ordering, as well as contactless payment and service,” Taco Bell CEO Mark King said in an emailed statement to Insider. “We’ve been working on some of these initiatives for a while, so we’re really accelerating the future of digital innovation.”
Even chains not traditionally thought of as “fast food” like Chipotle are leaning into contactless pickup and delivery, as well as experimenting with a drive-thru model in 2021.
Drive-thrus could be the most important part of fast-food chains adapting to changing customer behaviours.
For some customers, going through the drive-thru may still be seen as the most convenient and safest option.
In March of last year, drive-thrus generated $US8.3 billion in sales across the fast-food industry, compared to $US8 billion in sales over the same period in 2019. Perhaps even more staggering, in May it was reported that drive-thru sales represented approximately 70% of fast-food sales each month, according to data from the NPD Group, a market research firm, and the New York Times.
According to Restaurant Business, chains like Del Taco, Burger King, and Jack in the Box are focusing their efforts on drive-thru service. In some versions of Burger King’s new drive-thru-focused prototype restaurant, indoor dining seats have been eliminated entirely. Other possible Burger King restaurants of the future could feature outdoor dining areas.
Some fast-food restaurants without drive-thrus could close permanently.
According to the New York Times, drive-thrus have become a “lifeline” for fast-food chains during the pandemic. As the coronavirus pandemic forced many restaurants to shift to a strictly drive-thru or curbside pickup model, other stores without drive-thrus were forced to close.
According to a previous article by Business Insider, some chain restaurants, most of which do not have drive-thru models, have permanently closed over 1,500 locations so far as a result of the pandemic.
Some customers may still prefer to get their meals delivered.
Experts believe many customers will continue to rely on food delivery apps like Postmates, Grubhub, and Seamless for their fast-food orders.
“Certainly the best kiosk in the world is your mobile phone. It’s a portable kiosk and you can use it wherever you want and nobody else touches it,” Yum! Brands CEO David Gibbs told Yahoo Finance. “I think the use of mobile phones for kiosk type ordering will probably become more prevalent, and perhaps using kiosks in stores will become a little bit less part of the business model.”
Social distancing measures like blocked-off booths and markers may be in place for a while.
After fast-food restaurants reopened their dining rooms, they embraced creative ways to encourage social distancing in their establishments.
McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and Starbucks have all encouraged social distancing between customers by blocking off booths in many of their restaurants. However, the popularity of the fast-food dining room itself could be a thing of the past, experts say.
In October, Burger King CEO John Cappasola explained that demand for dining in at the fast-food chain has been down. As a result, the chain is looking to update its store design to include more drive-thru lanes and no-contact cubbies for pickup orders.
“You may be able to pick up some sales,” he told Restaurant Business. “But the drag down on profitability may not be worth it.”
Dining rooms will be cleaned more frequently.
One thing you’ll probably notice once fast-food restaurant dining rooms reopen is how clean they are. According to the McDonald’s reopening plan, workers are required to clean and sanitize tables after each use, and restrooms are required to be cleaned every 30 minutes.
At Chick-fil-A, workers are also required to disinfect “high-touch areas,” such as ordering tablets, credit card readers, trays, and door handles roughly every 30 minutes.
Some chains may offer hand-washing or sanitizing stations to employees.
Hand washing is still considered one of the main defences against catching the coronavirus. Recently, Chick-fil-A introduced hand-washing stations for its employees to use in the drive-thru lines.
While no other chains have released information about implementing these, most chains have touted having hand sanitizer available to both employees and customers.
Play places will likely remain closed for a while.
Family-style meal deals could be here to stay.
According to a previous article by Insider, a memo received from an anonymous Wendy’s employee reads: “Interestingly, Google searches for ‘Family Meal Deals’ [were] up 250% in the first week of April. The bottom line is, we need to make ordering large meals easier for our customers and our crew by introducing new Family Meal Deal options.”
Even today, a year on from the start of the pandemic, customers appear to be interested in fast-food options for the whole family, according to Quick Service Magazine.
David Portalatin, the food industry advisor for the NPD Group, told QSR, “That’s the problem that everybody in America must solve today: What’s for dinner? And however you could be a part of the solution, whether you are the grocery store, whether you’re the restaurant operator, is going to be the key.”
“Global” foods could also be a trend in the fast-food industry, according to experts.
Experts told QSR Magazine that restaurants may introduce more global foods as they expand their menus to welcome back customers in the future. Chains are already leaning into “global” flavours, such as Shake Shack’s recent release of a “Korean-inspired” menu, although that release was met with criticism.
“Consumer travel will be down, which often helps to drive interest in international cuisines,” Maeve Webster, president at food consultancy Menu Matters, told QSR.