The Future of McDonald's Is in the Drive-Thru Lane

The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed virtually every aspect of life around the globe. But in the case of fast food giant McDonald’s , its impact has been less of a catalyst than an accelerant for a process that was already firmly in place: a fundamental rethinking of how fast food works, starting with the drive-thru.Today at the company’s first investor update in three years, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski detailed a new long-term growth strategy that hinges in large part on machine learning and mobile software. That might sound strange for a company known more for its burgers than its bitrates. But given its recent investments—including its $300 million acquisition of “decision engine” Dynamic Yield last year—the Golden Arches can lay a convincing claim that it’s as much a tech company as anything else. And given its quick-service ubiquity, where it goes the whole industry will likely follow.
The dramatic changes wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic have made that transformation all the more critical. By mid-April, 97 percent of restaurants in the United States weren’t permitted to host in-person dining, according to market research company NPD Group. That makes the drive-thru—where 70 percent of McDonald’s sales have taken place during the Covid-19 pandemic globally in top markets—existentially important.“It’s a must-do, now,” says Lucy Brady, who since January has led a new McDonald’s digital engagement effort. “It’s no longer optional.”

McDonald’s says it has shaved 30 seconds off of the average drive-thru time since 2018; its future plans hinge on reducing those times even further. The math is simple: Faster ordering means more customers, which equals more transactions.

Some franchise locations have already enacted one significant change: a voice-assistant taking your order rather than a human, powered not by a name brand like Alexa but by a service-focused startup called Apprente, which McDonald’s acquired last fall . But the concepts McDonald’s is currently exploring involve more drastic changes to its stores’ footprints as well.

Some of those changes, like dedicated parking spaces for pick-up orders, have been successfully implemented on a smaller scale by other brands, and maybe even your local farm-to-table. Others are more ambitious, like a drive-thru lane exclusively for pick-up orders that delivers your food to you on a conveyor belt system; think of it like the deposits-only window at the bank, except goods flow in the opposite direction. And the company is even considering a concept store with limited or no in-room dining at all, just a kitchen surrounded by drive-thru lanes and pick-up parking.