How the Pandemic Changed Drive-Thrus and Takeout

March 9, 2021

As dining rooms closed across the country in 2020 because of the pandemic, restaurants started focusing their efforts on takeout and drive-thru orders. Many companies added new technology and logistical plans for their takeaway operations that will likely remain in place after the pandemic is over. For instance, Starbucks sent employees with hand-held devices through lines of cars to gather orders quickly and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. New Chipotle locations will feature “Chipotelanes” where customers can pick up pre-ordered meals at a window and then drive away in less than a minute.

Many other companies are improving their online ordering apps or even changing the physical design of their buildings to accommodate more takeout business. These changes mark a significant leap forward for the humble drive-thru, which has largely stayed the same since becoming widespread in the 1970s. “The drive-through has been one of those places that hasn’t changed in decades,” said Burger King’s chief marketing officer Ellie Doty. “But with Covid, we’re seeing the dramatic acceleration of directions we were already going.” Burger King is currently using an artificial intelligence system called Deep Flame that uses local sales data to advertise popular items on digital menu boards. 

McDonald’s has used a similar AI-driven system since it purchased a prominent tech startup in 2019, but the results of its investment are unclear. Still, many companies that had long been planning changes to their takeout systems are now hurriedly putting procedures in place to adapt to the altered environment. “We had started working on some of the formats even prior to the pandemic,” said Andrew McCaughan of Shake Shack, which plans to add drive-throughs and pickup windows to some locations this year. “But we saw a massive accelerator and catalyst to move faster and to get drive-through really going.”


  1. What did the pandemic change about how many restaurants approach drive-through and takeout orders? 
  2. Do you think artificial intelligence systems will help improve sales at chains like Burger King and McDonald’s? Why or why not?

Source: Julie Creswell, “Drive-Throughs That Predict Your Order? Restaurants Are Thinking Fast,” The New York Times, March 8, 2021.