- Mobile ordering and drive-thrus exploded in 2020, but many chains didn’t have the capacity to meet demand.
- Two years later, fast food chains are testing technology designed to make those orders faster and easier.
- Multiple drive-thru lanes, lanes dedicated to mobile ordering, and AI are becoming more common across the industry.
Fast food chains didn’t have the capacity to meet the huge demand for their products in 2020 and 2021, and now they’re finally implementing technology to address those needs.
78% of restaurant owners said that didn’t have enough workers to handle business, which led to many closing dining rooms or seating areas to lower the number of customers they could serve in a 2021 survey by the National Restaurant Association. According to the survey, 61% of fast-food restaurants, and 81% of full-service restaurants said that they decided to shut parts of dining rooms in August because they didn’t have the workers to serve those areas.
While staffing was low, mobile orders hit an “all-time high” for many chains. Workers at Chipotle, Starbucks, and other chains told Insider how the constant stream of mobile orders made it “impossible” to do their jobs up to standards.
Now by the end of 2022, QSR chains are finally rolling out technology that can take some strain off workers and cater to the way customers order. Panera is testing an AI-powered drive-thru system called Tori that takes customers’ orders at the speaker. Tori frees up the worker who would ordinarily be taking orders through a headset. Popeyes is experimenting with the same technology, and where Tori increased speed of service by 20% and boosted drink sales 150%.
Though Chipotle’s Chipotlane drive-thru concept has existed since 2018, it exploded more recently and the chain just opened its 500th location. Now, nearly 20% of US Chipotle locations have a drive-thru, and the majority of planned new locations include them too. Doubling down on the technology, Chipotle opened its first Chipotlane Digital Kitchen in Ohio in late 2021.
Chains with significant drive-thru and mobile ordering businesses pre-pandemic are finally stepping up their technology, too. Taco Bell launched its Go Mobile format in 2021, specifically created to cater to mobile orders with smaller footprints and a drive-thru lane for digital orders. In June, Chick-fil-A announced a test run of an express drive-thru lane exclusively for mobile orders, and McDonald’s is experimenting with a restaurant optimized for delivery and mobile orders in Texas.
These new restaurant technologies still require human workers, and they don’t necessarily eliminate all the problems for those workers. Formats designed for mobile orders don’t leave workers dealing with digital and walk-in customers at the same time. Eliminating dining rooms and directing customers to order through digital channels also frees up workers from jobs like cleaning up public spaces and taking orders, leaving them able to focus on food prep.
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