technology drive-thrus

The creative use of technology in pandemic-era drive-thrus

By Che Baird

After restaurant doors were closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting social distancing regulations, the use of technology in the quick-service restaurant (QSR) industry, especially in reference to drive-thrus, has become the beacon of hope helping businesses stay afloat. Not only is technology helping businesses manage changes to traditional operation models in order to remain efficient and profitable with automation and foodservice delivery, it is also allowing restaurant owners to protect their workers by prioritizing their safety and the safety of its customers.

Reimagining technology to achieve physical distancing

After temporarily closing in-restaurant operations and shifting to a “drive-thru only” model, a national food chain was faced with a challenge – how do you adhere to social distancing guidelines in the tight quarters of the drive-thru window? A typical scenario sees two or more registers with staff located in proximity, often less than six feet apart, to allow the division of tasks between the order taker and cashier. In the current environment, a traditional drive-thru window operation would no longer be considered safe and would contravene social distancing guidelines set by all levels of government.

As drive-thru traffic increased, the food chain sought out a solution with their point-of-sale (POS) software provider, Panasonic Canada Inc., to ensure their staff were able to achieve appropriate social distance in over 3,000 locations nationwide. Using existing POS technology, with the press of a button, the food chain’s locations could now convert idle front counter tills into drive-thru order takers. The closure of in-restaurant service meant the front counter tills were vacant which offered the additional space needed for staff to safely and efficiently operate the drive-thru while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Technology innovation in the restaurant industry does not always have to be complicated. In the case of this national food chain, the implementation of existing technology that allowed employees to work at a physically safe distance and omit the need for technicians to be physically in-store came to fruition in a matter of three days, from ideation to the completion of the software update.

Evolving consumer needs require focus on innovation

In our currently reality, with drive-thrus not only keeping businesses in the black but also meeting consumer needs, it is strange to recall that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic Canadian cities, including Toronto and Vancouver, had or had been considering banning drive-thrus because of the negative impact vehicles idling in lines has on the environment. In that situation, QSRs would need to choose to either steer their business toward more innovative, sustainable options, or stay idle. To meet evolving consumer demands, businesses must reassess the traditional window service in today’s technology-driven and environmentally conscious economy. Incorporating automation through pre-ordering via mobile apps or digital pre-payment and food locker pickup options can help QSRs move customers through the drive-thru faster, cutting down on the time spent idling in a vehicle and the added benefit of reducing the environmental impact. It has the additional benefit of getting customers a more accurate order, quicker, helping businesses keep pace with the demand for digitization and customization. Not only will this help QSRs manage business changes amid pandemic times, but it helps restaurants maximize their own profitability by improving processes and creating efficiencies all the time.

The future is now

Technology exists to enable QSRs to operate smart systems not only within their drive-thrus but elsewhere in their facilities, with capabilities such as ensuring customers’ orders arrive in a timely fashion, even during complicated situations. When POS, mobile apps, and BOH systems work in unison, the result is a solution that can keep track of what items are being used and adjust menu order requests accordingly – with less need for human intervention. End-to-end solutions can drive efficiencies, reduce losses, increase customer engagement, minimize food waste, and improve revenue, in drive-thrus and other areas of a QSR. That said, as the application of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning becomes more sophisticated, restaurants will be able change many variables such as an overstock or shortage of products to ordering the right amount of inventory to reflect current business circumstances.

The bottom line

Now more than ever, many in the foodservice sector are feeling the squeeze and are being forced to change traditional operations practices to manage the shifts in demand, the labour market, and rising food prices – not to mention complications that come with a pandemic. According to food research and consulting firm Technomic, the foodservice industry has been hit hard by the virus with more than 30 per cent of consumers saying they plan on leaving the house less often, going to restaurants less often, and even ordering food-and-beverage delivery less often. As the situation continues to unfold and businesses strive to stay operational, manufacturers need to continue to innovate and provide technology solutions to aid restaurant owners and franchisees looking to increase efficiency and stay profitable amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Che Baird is the national business development manager of QSR and retail solutions at Panasonic Canada. For more information, visit Panasonic’s website.