Drive-Throughs That Predict Your Order? Restaurants Are Thinking Fast

Inspired by pandemic lessons that kept customers in cars, chains are adding more lanes and curbside pickup, improving apps and testing menu boards that use artificial intelligence.

A car headed to a “Chipotlane,” which Chipotle hopes lets customers drive away with food in less than a minute.Credit…Winnie Au for The New York Times

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By Julie Creswell

Starbucks has employees at hundreds of busy locations strolling through car lines, taking orders with hand-held devices so customers can get their caffeine fix a few seconds faster. Shake Shack, which has long emphasized that quality ingredients are worth waiting a few extra minutes for, will soon feature its first drive-through window. And the vast majority of new Chipotles this year will have “Chipotlanes,” where customers can drive up to a window and pull away with preordered meals in less than a minute.

With dining room restrictions in place for much of the country during the pandemic, drive-through and pickup windows became critical ways for a variety of restaurants to remain afloat.

Now, as the dining industry looks toward a post-pandemic world, many companies are betting big that digital ordering and drive-throughs will remain integral to their success. And the basic experience of sitting in a single line of cars, speaking into a sometimes garbled intercom and pulling up to window to pay for your food before driving away is poised to be demonstrably altered for the first time in decades.

A number of restaurants are moving quickly to improve their online order and app abilities, change their physical designs or add two or three drive-through lanes. Some are testing artificial intelligence systems to tailor suggestions for individuals who pull up to the menu board.

“The drive-through has been one of those places that hasn’t changed in decades,” said Ellie Doty, the North American chief marketing officer for Burger King. “But with Covid, we’re seeing the dramatic acceleration of directions we were already going.”

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