We May Never Get Out of Our Cars Again to Eat

Drive-thru use has spiked since the pandemic hit, as consumers still balk at being social
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 8, 2023 4:13 PM CST
We May Never Get Out of Our Cars Again to Eat
How often do you hit the drive-thru?   (Getty Images/NewSaetiew)

There's always something going on at the drive-thru, but that may be simply because so many people are using it these days. It's an uptick that arose after COVID's arrival, with customers who now crave "speed and solitude" when picking up a meal outside the home, reports the New York Times. Stats from Revenue Management Solutions show that drive-thru visits are now responsible for about two-thirds of purchases made at fast-food joints, while food service research company Technomic has found that drive-thru traffic jumped 30% between 2019 and 2022.

"The pandemic sent people into the comforting isolation of their cars to get tested for COVID, celebrate birthdays, and even vote," the paper notes. "And now, it seems, they don't want to get out," even to eat. Restaurants in the $113 billion fast-food industry are trying to cater to that, customizing menu offerings based on past customer picks, experimenting with AI "servers" that can switch to Spanish if the driver starts off their order speaking it, and adding more car lanes—the Times cites one soon-to-open Chick-fil-A in Atlanta that will be able to serve 75 cars at a time using a conveyor belt system.

So what's driving (literally) people to the drive-thru in lieu of a sit-down meal inside fast-food venues, or even heading inside to place one's order? Industry experts say the drive-thru experience has become much more streamlined than in the past, while younger generations (millennials, Gen Z, etc.) increasingly rely on fast grabs at Starbucks or similar eateries. However, much of it may be due to what the Times calls a "societal sea change": Everyone's feeling a little more anti-social after the pandemic.

story continues below

In fact, per a poll from late 2021 cited last year by Hospitality Technology, nearly half those who visited fast-food restaurants said they'd be cool with losing all human interaction when picking up a meal. "Working from home for three years really zapped my social skills," a woman from Portland, Oregon, tells the paper. Much more here, including on the history of drive-thru service. (More drive-thru stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.