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Chains like Chipotle and Starbucks once coaxed Americans out of their cars for a premium experience, but the drive-thru is winning out now

December 12, 2021

Starbucks and Chipotle built their brands around offering premium experiences.

Now, both chains are growing their drive-thru presence in the US.Drive-thrus exploded during the pandemic in 2020.

Drive-thrus now dominate the quick service industry, but it wasn’t always obvious things were moving that way.

Once, chains like Starbucks and Chipotle convinced Americans to get out of their cars and go inside stores, promising them a premium experience.

Chipotle first grew popular with customized burritos and burrito bowls made behind an assembly line, where customers could point directly to ingredients on the assembly line, a similar model pioneered by Subway. An early New York Times review of Chipotle from 2003 commented on this quality.

“What’s more, while the components of Chipotle’s burritos, fajitas and tacos are made in advance, they are assembled to order, a crucial element in the leap from sustenance to pleasure,” the review read.

Part of the novelty of Chipotle has been seeing the components of a burrito or bowl come together, where customers can often ask the person behind the glass for a little more sour cream, or a fuller scoop of beans.

Since then, times have changed. Digital orders and drive-thrus have become priorities for Chipotle. Some digital sales are through Chipotlanes, the fast-casual chain’s drive-thrusthat Chipotle is adding to new restaurants.

Of the 41 new Chipotles that opened in 2021, 36 of them have Chipotlanes. There are 284 US Chipotlanes as of September 30, and Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung said so far the chain is seeing “encouraging results” in a recent earnings call discussing third-quarter earnings. Chipotlanes also offer higher margins than a traditional Chipotle make-line and dining room, Hartung said, because they typically have higher sales and operate more efficiently than the traditional format.

Chipotlanes have been in the works for a few years. By early 2019, Chipotle had10 US Chipotlanes, and executives told Insider that they planned to open dozens more, while also investing in digital ordering. Now, the brand is investing in building more online-order only“Chipotlanes”and opening new locations. CEO Brian Niccol said in an earnings call last year that Chipotle plans tomore than double its locations.

Starbucks, which popularized a premium coffee experience in the US, has long emphasized its role as a “third place,” where people can gather outside of homes and workplaces. Now, Starbucks is investing in growing drive-thrus and digital ordering, with some new restaurant formats focused around digital orders.

Drive-thrus in suburban and rural stores helped “carry us through the COVID period” and continue to show strong sales, John Culver, Starbucks group president North America and COO said in a recent earnings call discussing fourth-quarter earnings.

“Out the window sales,” including drive-thru and mobile orders completed through the drive-thru, made up over 50% of sales in the first quarter of 2021, with a 10% increase over pre-pandemic levels. The majority of new US Starbucks locations contain drive-thrus, and the chain has even closed some mall locations to focus more on drive-thrus.

It’s possible drive-thrus were always going to win out as they become more efficient. Hartung cited internal data that the time from ordering to food being ready in Chipotlanes is about 10 minutes, down from 12 minutes last year. This decrease in wait time is especially impressive as fast food is getting slower across the board. Meanwhile, earlier this year Culver said Starbucks said that Starbucks is focusing on decreasing drive-thru wait times for customers. Starbucks is also renovating 150 US drive-thrus that are space-constrained to make them more efficient, Culver said.

The pandemic reminded Americans just how convenient drive-thrus are, and they aren’t willing to go back.

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