In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, with restaurant dining rooms closed, chains counted on drive-through and takeout business to survive. Now they're doubling down — testing drive-throughs with double, triple or even quadruple lanes.
Wisconsin-based burger and custard chain Culver's newest Chicago-area restaurant opened last week in Pullman, on Chicago's South Side, with a two-lane drive-through that franchise owner Baron Waller hopes will get diners in and out faster than at his other restaurants, including one in the Bronzeville neighborhood that's "always busy, and always has a line."
"It gives us the opportunity to take more orders simultaneously," he said.
Culver's started introducing two-lane drive-throughs last year, though decisions on whether individual restaurants build them are up to franchise owners like Waller. It's part of Culver's broader focus on keeping up with a pandemic boom in to-go dining that continues to outpace growth in dine-in sales, said CEO Rick Silva.
"You can give more love and hospitality in the dining room, but … you have more growth happening off-premise than on, and we need to make sure we can continue to grow that capacity," he said.
In addition to the two-lane drive-through, Culver's is experimenting with giving employees tablets at certain restaurant locations so they can take orders at customers' cars, rather than having them wait to order one at a time at the speaker in a traditional drive-through lane.
Culver's doesn't deliver but is updating its technology so it will have the ability to handle delivery orders, Silva said.
At fast-food restaurants, the share of orders placed in the restaurant has recovered from pandemic lows, accounting for 29% of orders as of July, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based food service research and consulting firm.
But ordering in the restaurant is still less common than before the pandemic, while drive-through and pickup and delivery both remain more popular than they used to be. Drive-throughs brought in roughly half of orders in July.
Even before the pandemic, convenient, on-the-go dining options were gaining popularity, and the pandemic accelerated that trend, pushing restaurants to rethink the traditional drive-through, said David Henkes, senior principal at Technomic.
"How can we make it even more seamless, smoother and more efficient?" he said.
Culver's isn't the only restaurant asking that question.
Burger chain Shake Shack is opening its first restaurant with a drive-through this year and planning up to 10 by the end of 2022, starting with locations in Kansas City, Mo., Minneapolis, Orlando, and Detroit, CEO Randall Garutti said during a call discussing the company's third-quarter earnings earlier this month.
Shake Shack also is adding locations with drive-up windows where customers can pick up advance orders. About a quarter of restaurants opening next year will have one.
Chains that have already built out a drive-through business, meanwhile, are looking for ways to adapt them to new ways customers are ordering.
Chicago-based Portillo's said early this year that it plans to open a restaurant in Joliet, Ill., with no space for customers to sit down, but three drive-through lanes.
The company, known for its Italian beef sandwiches and Chicago-style hot dogs, is testing the third lane to give people who ordered ahead a speedier pickup option, the company said in a regulatory filing before it went public last month.
Portillo's already has two-lane drive-throughs at nearly all its restaurants, with employees walking up to cars to take orders. The average Portillo's generated $3.4 million in drive-through sales and $4.4 million in dine-in sales in 2019, the company said in the regulatory filing. During the year that ended June 27, the average restaurant's drive-through generated $4.9 million in sales, more than double the dine-in business that year.
Taco Bell, meanwhile, announced a new "Go Mobile" restaurant concept last year with two drive-through lanes, one for customers who preordered through its app. The restaurants will also have "bellhops" who take drivers' orders on tablets, and curbside pickup, in restaurants a little more than half the size of an average Taco Bell.
The company was already planning Go Mobile before the pandemic, but accelerated those plans last year, president and Global Chief Operating Officer Mike Grams said in a statement, describing the restaurant as "meeting our customers where they are."
"At the intersection of the drive-through and digital experiences, our customers have both traditional and order-ahead options, allowing the experience to be what they make it, ultimately making it easier for our fans to enjoy our brand," he said.
There are 23 "Go Mobile" locations today, and 85 more planned. In August, Taco Bell announced an even newer concept: a two-story restaurant with no dining room, a second-story kitchen and four drive-through lanes, three for customers who ordered ahead and delivery drivers. It's expected to open in Brooklyn Park next summer.
Last fall, McDonald's said it's also testing new options for takeout customers, including a smaller restaurant focused on pickup, delivery and drive-through with limited or no dine-in seating, an express drive-through lane for customers who ordered ahead through the app and technology that lets employees know to begin preparing an advance order when the customer is on the way.
While plenty of people are "more than happy" to get back to sitting down in casual restaurants for a meal, others have become accustomed to the convenience of grab-and-go dining, said Mark Brandau, group manager at food industry research firm Datassential.
Only a little more than a third of consumers surveyed in October said their most recent restaurant meal was actually eaten at the restaurant, according to a report from Datassential. The rest took their meals to go, with 20% saying they'd ordered at the drive-through.
"Anytime conveniences like this get introduced, they do stick around for a sizable number of consumers," he said.