Speed and efficiency serve as the hallmarks of any foodservice operation, but for drive-thru stations, these factors become the difference between sinking or swimming.
When it comes to drive-thru design, it pays to get it right given the potential revenue involved. Americans visit drive-thru lanes about 6 billion times each year, with between 60% and 70% of most fast-food sales coming from drive-thrus, per data from Quantum Real Estate Advisors Inc. An estimated 70% of fast-food sales are drive-thru orders.
In the past, higher-volume concepts would run two separate production lines — one for in-store customers and one for the drive-thru, he says. “Now, we’re looking more toward consolidated fulfillment, so any food can go down the production line, one to the left for those dining in and to the right for the drive-thru,” Seely says. “This process allows more capacity for flow-through and better accommodates other fulfillment channels, like online orders, which may or may not be picked up at the drive-thru.”
Drive-thrus handling online orders may include a second car lane to ease wait times and traffic. “Drive-thrus and digital ordering really took off during the pandemic,” says Juan Martinez, principal and co-founder of Miami-based Profitality Labor Guru. “Now, these stations must provide higher peak throughput to increase sales and profits.”
Although the design of the space is very important, Martinez notes another critical consideration is ensuring the kitchen production system supports the operations, specifically minimizing the delays to get food to the window, preferably before the car arrives from the menu board.
With drive-thru design, as in most kitchens, space is at a premium. For this reason, it can be a challenge to accommodate the equipment and supplies necessary to get orders out expeditiously.
“The goal is not only efficiency but also proper space utilization,” says Michael Salvatore, senior director, Ruck-Shockey Associates Inc., Truckee, Calif. “This includes not just the space in front of the employee, but also above and below.”
In addition to kitchen display systems to monitor orders, hands-free communication plays a critical role in connecting staff to the kitchen and the customers placing orders. “If those functions are separated, customers will be at the window waiting too long for their order,” Salvatore explains. “The station needs all the tools for good communication, and that includes everyone involved in the drive-thru order.”
By the same token, with this station’s design, it’s necessary to account for the employees’ physical, cognitive and ergonomic capabilities. “The primary consideration when designing the space is to make sure that everything has a place and a purpose to facilitate the employees’ execution of the customer hospitality,” Martinez says. “We need to consider all the operating parameters, including processes, procedures, station design and adjacencies, as well as equipment and technologies used.”
Speed of service is always a priority but especially with drive-thrus. The approach needs to accommodate minimal staffing. “How the drive-thru space is laid out and its adjacency to other spaces is important,” Seely says. “We look at both footsteps and flow, as there must be easy accessibility to the areas with product or a simple process for food to be brought into the station.”
In addition to proximity and logistics, the amount of space allocated for putting together and staging orders should be sufficient. “There should be a landing area to assemble and gather all the order components that is not too cluttered or cramped,” Salvatore notes. “In this case, the largest order needs to be taken into account so there is enough space to comfortably accommodate that.”
There also should be a condiment system that can remain organized with all the accompaniments needed, he adds. This may be set up vertically rather than horizontally. “The ease of retrieval and good visuals are necessary for the speed and efficiency needed to develop muscle memory,” Salvatore explains. “Everything should be in the same place every time.”
This includes designating a convenient place for all packaging. “When you’re pulling burgers or chicken sandwiches off the hot rail and building the order, you need easy access to the bag, utensils [and] a tray for drinks and napkins,” Salvatore says. “Everything has to be in the station, and you don’t want employees to pivot if they don’t have to.” To accomplish this, he says the station should be laid out no greater than 90 degrees toward the guest. “Working the station, employees can twist and hand over items, rather than having to do a 180 to get to the window,” he explains.
Critical Design Components
A major concern when designing these areas is how a station that averages between 60 and 75 square feet (and at a maximum measures 8 feet long and 2 feet deep) can be used to get food out to customers in about 30 seconds.
Start by looking at the operational processes. “From our perspective, we’re looking at the number of orders and transaction times, in addition to how many cars and customers are coming through in a certain period of time,” Seely says. “We start by looking at operational processes, what the flow needs to be and volumes we have to hit. Then we think about equipment, placement and labor deployment to operate at lower volumes with less associates.” The amount of food that needs to get through at one time is a factor prior to pulling in the equipment and confirming the size and type that’s needed, he adds. After that, it’s about looking at how much the station’s adjacencies play with the rest of the space.
This analysis prior to design can help accomplish drive-thru goals of efficiency and speed of service. Martinez agrees that processes and procedures; equipment and technology platforms; and station adjacencies and information flow represent key considerations when designing a drive-thru.
“A good sound system is critical, and digital menu boards are evolving quite a bit,” Martinez notes. “But an important piece is the workstation, with everything in its place and a place for everything.”
The vertical space and the area that will hold beverage systems, ice dispensers, POS systems and dispensers for condiments, cups, lids, bags, napkins and utensils should be properly allocated and fully utilized. “Best in class is about how many cars can get through in an hour,” Martinez says. “Drive-thru stations are like an airplane cockpit, with everything consolidated in one small space.”
What has helped expedite orders is equipment innovations and automation. “With smart technology, it’s easier for associates,” Seely explains. “Automation is coming in across the board, not just in producing products, but also with packaging and order taking.”
By streamlining the order fulfillment process with the latest technology, it enhances speed of service and also simplifies onboarding and training. “Automation has to become mainstream,” Seely says. “This includes equipment that helps hold temperature and maintain food quality longer for online orders.”
In addition to automation, better-designed equipment can save time and employee aggravation. “For example, accessing cup lids and condiment packets can be a pain in the neck,” Salvatore admits. “By incorporating newer dispensers that easily provide one lid at a time, as well as vertical and slightly angled condiment dispensers, speed of assembly and accuracy can be improved.”
A number of chains have reimagined the drive-thru for today’s service demands. The design of KFC’s digital-forward Next Generation concept streamlines the guest experience. Design elements include a dedicated entry for customers picking up orders and delivery aggregators, an integrated area for online orders with direct access from the kitchen to expedite order fulfillment, and defined parking and signage for delivery drivers and customers using what KFC brands Quick Pick-Up.
As part of the new design, KFC increases space in the drive-thru area and bumps out the drive-thru window to give team members a more visual connection with customers. The interior drive-thru space is larger in square footage to provide team members more space for activity. The interior drive-thru station includes a drink machine, two POS systems, a cooler space and a sauce bin. With this redesigned Next Gen concept, the post pack, which feeds the drive-thru area, provides more space and serves as a one-stop shop to support efficiency and accuracy. KFC also revitalizes the back-of-the-house flow with a newly designed integrated packline. Updating team member workstations rebalanced the workload to focus on customer service.
KFC’s improvements are an upgrade. Ideally, a drive-thru station layout should enable maximizing peak hourly throughput, along with being efficient for low volumes, Martinez notes. This is highly dependent on logistics and adjacencies.
“The drive-thru station should be an extension of the cook line that feeds into it,” Salvatore explains. “This line has to go two directions in that type of setting — to both those dining in and output to the drive-thru.”
When looking at a design’s process flow, Salvatore looks to create a seamless approach at the point where food leaves the production area and goes to service. “I really like to think out packaging, including where and how it will travel, so it’s not cumbersome and can be handed over easily,” he says.
There also should be space for work in process, Martinez says, such as filling beverages. He also recommends “an organized space for packaging orders and the ability to handle incidences when an order is not ready to go or the guest changes their order.”
Obviously, the objective is to have everything necessary within the drive-thru station so employees don’t have to leave their post. “We tend to put the base pieces together as a puzzle, including beverage and holding equipment, as well as dispensers, so employees don’t have to abandon the station during key times,” Seely explains. “It’s about understanding and programming space to handle supply storage and finding that right balance by not putting too much in the space — but enough to handle peak times.”
The method and process are to go through the drive-thru station components item by item. “We use data to help us determine the appropriate amount of space that will be needed,” Seely explains. “Then we think about the process of building orders to see where different items should be placed in the station to right-size the space.”
In the end, drive-thru station design depends on organization and communication. “More customers are going through drive-thrus now than ever before, and they need a similar experience as they would have when ordering inside,” Seely notes.