Drive-Throughs Are Now a Lifeline for Fast-Food Chains

on May1
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For decades, the fast-food drive-through has been a greasy symbol of Americana, a roadside ritual for millions of travelers with a hankering for burgers and fries.

Now, the drive-through, with its brightly-colored signage and ketchup-stained paper bags, has taken on a new importance in the age of social distancing.

“For many restaurants, it’s an absolute savior,” said Jonathan Maze, the executive editor of Restaurant Business Magazine.

At many chains, including McDonald’s, the drive-through accounted for as much as 70 percent of revenue before the crisis, generating billions of dollars for the industry every month. During the pandemic, sales have mostly held steady. In March, drive-throughs generated $8.3 billion across the fast-food industry, an increase from $8 billion in sales over the same period in 2019, according to data from the NPD Group, a market research firm.

But while it has shielded fast-food companies from the worst economic effects of the pandemic, the drive-through has become a dangerous place for some low-wage workers, who cook and serve food in cramped conditions, often without access to protective equipment. In a number of states, workers at McDonald’s and other chains have staged walkouts and called for increased safety precautions.

Like other businesses that have remained open, drive-throughs are often tinged with fear. Some customers roll down their windows just far enough to stick out a pair of tongs. Others arrive armed with Lysol spray and plastic wrap.

And despite repeated assurances from the major fast-food chains that gloves and face masks are on the way, anxious (and often mask-less) employees working at drive-throughs struggle to maintain social distance, even with fewer workers on each shift.

“It’s impossible to keep six feet apart in the workplace and definitely impossible to stay that far away from customers,” said Terrence Wise, 40, a shift manager at a McDonald’s in Kansas City, Mo. “If you’re taking a customer’s money and they cough or sneeze, you’re on alert and on edge.”

During the pandemic, McDonald’s has made a handful of lower-tech adjustments, simplifying its menu to make lines move faster by cutting all-day breakfast and using only one type of lettuce. “The less choices you have for your crew to make, the more efficient and fast they can be,” Mr. Tovar said.

Taco Bell has also changed how it runs its drive-throughs. In the past, the company mostly filled relatively small orders. Now, customers are buying much larger meals — enough food to put leftovers in the refrigerator, according to Mike Grams, the chain’s chief operating officer.

“They’re locked up in their house, and so when they come out, and they go to a drive-through, they want to buy more,” Mr. Grams said.

To accommodate those new ordering habits, the company has moved its drive-through workers from the window to the now-vacant dine-in area, opening up space for cooks to assemble larger, more complicated orders in the kitchen.

Without drive-throughs, these kinds of dine-in restaurants — many of which have taken on significant debt since the 2008 financial crisis — may struggle.

“We’ll see some large dining chains go under,” said Aaron Allen, a restaurant consultant. “It’ll finally be the death knell for them.”

Over all, however, the corporate muscle of the big fast-food companies puts franchisees in an enviable position compared to most small businesses, especially independent restaurants. At Burger King and Popeyes, individual store owners have gotten help from corporate “franchisee liquidity teams” in applying for the loans under the government’s small-business relief program.

These days, however, the experience of ordering a burger from behind the steering wheel feels more like a reasonable safety precaution than a cold transaction.

And to some, it also feels refreshingly normal.

“It speaks to something that is extremely unremarkable,” Mr. Chandler said. “That you can do that at a time of enormous upheaval is meaningful. It’s poignant in this really chaotic moment.”

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