We have all been there. Sitting in the drive-thru lane of our favorite restaurant, balancing the conflicting feelings of excitement and guilt. Excited for the delicious goodness that awaits, our mouths salivating with anticipation. Feeling guilty because our menu choices may not align with our dietary plan, New Year’s workout resolution, or our home financial budget. But there’s just something about the convenience of driving our cars to the oasis on the horizon and being able to order whatever we want in that moment and to have it served to us, in our vehicle.


Drive-thrus have always been a staple on long road trips or nights when we just can’t decide what to make for ourselves. It’s the convenience and availability that makes it even more appealing. Drive-thru restaurants are often located near major highways for ease of access. Their quick and easy ordering process, sharing your momentary desires through a speaker in a standing outdoor menu box, makes it almost too easy to pass up. Drive-thrus can be found anywhere, with some studies estimating up to half a million worldwide. According to Delaget’s 2020 QSR Operational Index, quick-serve restaurants saw a massive sales shift to the drive-thru in 2020, with drive-thrus capturing a whopping 82.4 percent of the spend, up from 66.8 percent in 2020.


The Evolution of Drive-Thru Restaurant Design


Drive-thru restaurants have been a staple of Americana for over a century. Once cars were mass-produced and became commonplace, restaurants began catering to vehicles out of demand for food on-the-go. In the 1920’s, drive-ins were popularized and carhops began utilizing roller skates for faster service, while offering a unique feel that set them apart from competitors. In 1948, the first contemporary drive-thru experience arrived, courtesy of In-N-Out Burger in California. This model made sense for all stakeholders involved. Restaurant owners could employ fewer people to serve customers, and customers had the ease of getting a quick meal on the go.



Modern Drive-Thru Renaissance


As the world faced COVID restaurant owners were forced to change how they served customers. Between quarantines, and stay-at-home orders, most folks have been traveling less, and as a result we all are spending less time in our cars. As with most industries, drive-thru restaurants have been drastically affected by these changes. While the convenience of drive-thrus still remains, the look, feel and functionality of drive-thru restaurants has undergone a renaissance as owners continue to innovate to meet market conditions and demands.


Just as the drive-in pioneers of our yesteryears, to keep up with increasing demand, thanks in part to restrictions on being able to enjoy the sit-down dining option, drive-thrus have a golden opportunity to be creative and inventive; to set themselves apart from market competition.


Perhaps one of the most recognizable changes already seen in drive-thrus is the size, color and options available on the menu. Bright colors, flashy signage and shiny things draw our attention. However, we will actually see these flashy boards go away as app-based order functionality becomes more mainstream and the drive-thru lane evolves. For owners, these changes will include changes in how consumers order, the packaging of the goods we seek, as well as functionality of being able to consume the product on-the-go. No driver will want to order a big, messy meal that’s difficult to eat while driving.


The future of drive-thru restaurants will continue to evolve to meet expectations of customers. They want convenience, fast and reliable service, easy-ordering, and high-quality food choices. Being an iconic piece of American culture, drive-thrus are here to stay and in these times, the confidence that comes with believing that our car dining room is a more sanitary option, provides us with confidence to continue to frequent our favorite indulgences.


I’ll have a #4 combo please.    




Erik Koenig has been a project manager with Shingobee Builders, in our St. Cloud office, for 25 years. He has managed tenant improvement and remodel projects for dozens of restaurants, retail, banks, credit unions, and more, and is known for building repeat relationships with his clients. 





Shingobee has helped many restaurant owners implement new designs to keep up with changes in the industry.


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