How Would Your Business Change If You Added A Drive-Thru?

by Paul Schlossberg
Posted On: 3/27/2018

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Paul Schlossberg
Drive-thru windows are everywhere. You can find them at fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, drugstores and more. My local dry cleaner has a drive-thru lane for faster service when dropping off or picking up my suits and shirts.

The drive-thru, especially at fast-food restaurants, leads to "dashboard dining." Odds are we've all been dashboard diners after a quick stop at the drive-thru. Maybe it was at breakfast time while in a hurry to get to work. It might have been while we were out running errands during lunch hour on a busy day.

Everyone wins at the drive-thru window. It saves time for shoppers: we do not have to leave our cars. For restaurant operators, the potential benefits are very important. They can build on a smaller piece of land. Construction costs will be lower. These smaller stores have fewer seats because there is less in-store traffic.

McDonald's, Starbucks and the other fast-food operators have stores where more than half of sales are done at the drive-thru window. There are locations where more than 70% of sales are done at the drive-thru.

By now you're wondering how drive-thru windows relate to running your business. Okay, let's all agree that it's unlikely that you will be adding a drive-thru window at locations you serve. Even so, there are lots of lessons we can learn from the drive-thru window.

Fast-food restaurant operators determined that they could speed up service at the counter by offering combination meals. It is much faster to say "a number one, please with a diet cola" than to say, "A double cheeseburger with fries and a diet cola, please." Not only is it faster, it is more accurate too.

They found out that their drive-thru customers demanded a few things. Order accuracy was critical. Sitting in line can be frustrating enough. Having to deal with an incomplete or wrong order made people even more upset. Mistakes at the window clogged up the parking lot and slowed service for the other cars waiting in line.

Not being able to understand garbled conversations at the order point was a big problem. That added to order accuracy problems and really made customers angry. Communications hardware and software have been upgraded, much to everyone's relief.

They also determined that speed of service really mattered.  That was a challenge for the kitchens and the staff to keep orders flowing at a fast pace. An article at described it this way. "The fast-food business, Cowen analyst Andrew Charles said, is 'maniacal about drive-thru speeds.' Years ago, then-McDonald's CEO Jack Greenberg said unit sales got a 1% bump for every six seconds shaved off the drive-thru time."

Eventually, a separate window was added to deal with payments. The team members at the service window could focus exclusively on assembling and delivering orders.

There is a report from that "(McDonald's) will automate one of the most time-consuming parts of visiting McDonald's: dictating an order to an employee and exchanging money." Other fast-food chains are also testing mobile ordering and payment for in-store and drive-thru service. As these mobile capabilities roll out, it will save time and speed up service for the shoppers and the stores.

There were menu challenges related to the speed of service at the drive-thru. Some products, the McWrap for example, have been discontinued. Preparation time was one challenge for operators with the McWrap.

There is a Chick-fil-A about eight miles from our home. When we are in the area at lunch time, the drive-thru demand is so strong that the line runs off their lot. At times we've seen two staffers taking orders from cars in line to speed up service.


Here is a slide used in some of my presentations at NAMA and a number of state association meetings.
Take these lessons from drive-thru operations:

Get a stopwatch. Go to your best locations at peak service periods. Time patrons from the time they walk in until they have their full order. At that point, they will either sit down to eat or leave to eat elsewhere. In the past, the fast-food restaurant chains had an in-store service standard. They expected that it would take five minutes from the time you walked in until you left the counter with your order.

Figure out how to sell combination meals. Maybe you can do it at your micromarket locations. More than 20 years ago, we were working with a very shrewd vending operator. He showed us how to deliver a combination meal without any software or hardware adaptations.

Have you designed your locations to let people shop for multiple items? Where does a shopper, holding two items, put his "stuff" while purchasing item #3? Juggling is an acquired skill. Don't expect that your locations are serving people who can juggle multiple items.

Cashless. Cashless. Cashless. If you are not handling cashless payments, you are wasting time for your shoppers. You have no choice on this one. You'll either be in the 21st century or lagging behind.

Expand your thinking to drive increased sales. What would you change if you had to serve with a drive-thru window? How can you speed up service? Don't look at the opportunity from your own perspective. See it from the shopper's position. Treat them well and they will reward you with repeat purchases. That means higher sales and more profits. It all comes down to "selling more stuff."


First there were drive-in restaurants. You parked your car and walked up to the window to place your order.

The drive-thru came later. It started in the late 1940s. According to an article in Money, "10 Things You Didn't Know About the fast-food Drive-Thru," the first drive-thru -- Red's Giant Hamburg in Springfield, MO -- opened in 1947 on iconic Route 66. The next one was in 1948: the original In-N-Out Burger in Baldwin Park, CA. The first chain operator to open a drive-thru was Jack in the Box. That was in 1951.

According to the article, McDonald's first drive-thru was opened in 1975 in Sierra Vista, AZ. (Note: Other sources indicate that their first drive-thru was at a store in Oklahoma City, OK in 1974.)

Today, McDonald's "gets 63 percent of its business from customers who stay in their cars" – from an article at


Paul Schlossberg is the president of D/FW Consulting, working with clients to merchandise and market products in impulse-intense selling environments, such as vending, onsite foodservice and convenience stores. Based in the Austin, TX area, he can be reached at or 972-877-2972 or