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Food Service Industry Updates

Thank Goodness for the Drive-Thru …


iStock/Kristen Prahl

Drive-thru service has been a part of the foodservice industry since the late 1940s. But it’s arguably never been more important than it is today.

Without drive-thru service during the pandemic, where would the foodservice industry be?

“Drive-thru restaurants have always been the ultimate in convenience and speed but during the pandemic, especially during the mandated dine-in closures, they were also a lifeline for the restaurants that had them, market researcher The NPD Group states in a new report.

According to NPD, drive-thru restaurant visits increased by 26% in the April, May and June quarter and represented 42% of all restaurant visits. In July, when more restaurants were reopened, drive-thru visits still increased by 13%, the highest visit increase among the service modes of on-premises, carry-out, and delivery, NPD found in its daily tracking of U.S. consumers’ use of restaurants and other foodservice outlets.

Fast-food chains, of course, have the majority of drive-thrus and although visits declined 17% during the second quarter, the segment fared far better than other restaurant categories and segments, according to NPD. For example, many fast-casual restaurants, which outpaced the U.S. restaurant industry in visit and unit growth for several years prior to the COVID pandemic, don’t have drive-thru operations and experienced steeper declines (-26%) in the second quarter. Full service restaurants, most of which don’t have drive-thru and were also most impacted by the mandated dine-in closure, saw traffic decline by 48% in April, May and June with a decline improvement in July to  -32%. 

“Drive-thru operations are delivering a high return on investment during the pandemic, offering convenience, speed, and the comfort of social distance to consumers using them,” says David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America.  “Fast casual and traditional quick service chains have already announced expansion plans for their drive-thru operations, and we will hear more chains doing the same. Drive-thru and other off-premises operations will be a major part of the U.S. restaurant industry’s recovery and future.”