Faith Enokian from the University of South Alabama has a particular fondness for drive-throughs. She frequents them at least eight times a week, whether it’s for picking up food or engaging in unique interactions with Starbucks baristas and documenting the experience on TikTok. Enokian admits that her love for drive-throughs may stem from laziness but is also drawn to the convenience and comfort of being in her car.
Since In-N-Out Burger introduced a two-way speaker in 1948, drive-throughs have played a significant role in shaping American food culture. However, their importance has significantly increased during the pandemic. People turned to drive-throughs as a safe and secluded space for various activities such as COVID testing, celebrating birthdays, and even voting. As a result, drive-through traffic has increased by 30% from 2019 to 2022. On the other hand, dining inside fast-food restaurants has seen a drastic decline of 47% in the same period. Drive-throughs now account for two-thirds of all fast-food purchases.
Acknowledging this momentum, the fast-food industry is embracing the drive-through trend. Popeyes is reducing the size of dining rooms, Taco Bell is experimenting with eliminating them altogether, and Chick-fil-A is planning to open a high-capacity, multi-lane drive-through in Atlanta. Restaurants are also personalizing mobile menus based on individual customers’ past purchases and exploring the use of artificial intelligence to take orders in Spanish or English, depending on the customer’s preference.
There are several reasons behind this renewed drive-through popularity. One significant factor is the faster and smoother experience provided by technological upgrades such as improved mobile ordering, streamlined kitchens, and efficient traffic management. Additionally, cultural shifts, such as the growing popularity of coffee shop drive-throughs among Generation Z and millennials, as well as increased pet ownership, have contributed to the rise in drive-through usage.
However, the most significant explanation for this trend may be a societal shift towards less interaction with strangers. People emerged from the pandemic with a heightened focus on safety and a reduced tolerance for engaging with unfamiliar individuals. The drive-through environment provides a sense of physical and psychological safety. Social scientist Shelley Balanko argues that fellow shoppers and staff can often be disgruntled or difficult to be around, making the drive-through a more appealing option in certain situations.
Individuals like Ronald Gross from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, find comfort and solace in the isolation of their cars at drive-throughs. Gross, who used to dine inside restaurants regularly, now prefers the drive-through experience due to the decreased desire for social interaction, a sentiment shared by others. Even at drive-throughs like Chick-fil-A and Dutch Bros, where employees interact cheerfully with customers, some individuals prefer minimal interaction and choose drive-throughs to maintain their privacy.
The fast-food industry has always found ways to adapt to consumer preferences. Drive-throughs have evolved over time to cater to changing needs and desires. Drive-throughs gained popularity in the 1950s as a convenient and family-friendly dining option. In subsequent decades, they provided a quick and affordable solution for families with busy schedules. However, by the 2010s, drive-throughs faced criticism, leading to some cities banning new drive-through lanes.
In recent years, fast-food chains like Starbucks and Biscuitville have embraced creativity by building smaller drive-through restaurants that better integrate into communities. McDonald’s has experienced significant growth in digital orders, with 40% of its sales coming from digital channels. The company opened its first drive-through restaurant without a dining room in 2021. The quality and price of drive-through food have improved, and wait times have decreased. Customers now expect a seamless, technologically advanced, and personalized drive-through experience.
The drive-through trend has also been embraced by the younger generation, known for customizing their orders on mobile apps, valuing speed, and sharing their experiences on platforms like TikTok. Drive-through culture has become a subject of exploration and entertainment on social media, attracting millions of views. Even fast-casual restaurants that once focused on urban customers who preferred more upscale and healthy options have acknowledged the popularity of drive-throughs by incorporating them into their business models.
In conclusion, the drive-through experience has become an integral part of American food culture, especially during the pandemic. Drive-throughs offer convenience, safety, and reduced social interaction, which resonates with consumers in today’s society. The fast-food industry has adapted to meet these changing preferences by investing in technology, optimizing the drive-through process, and catering to individual customer needs.