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The UK Love Affair with the Drive-Thru

Lockdown has emphasised our obsession with drive-thru fast food outlets and coffee shops.  Whilst this isn’t great news for the independent coffee houses and restaurants we loved to frequent before lockdown, it places the big brands in a fantastic position to be able to open their stores again and the reported queues as lockdown restrictions have started to ease have shown just how much customers have scrambled to get a taste of pre-lockdown life.

For ‘research purposes’ we headed to Pallion Retail Park in Sunderland (added on to an essential work journey) to see how their drive-thru had adapted to the current situation. First of all, it was around 11.30am and the queue was well within the stacking space with only 3 cars in front of us.  The order was placed on a new serving contraption that also housed the car machine.  With the server wearing mask and gloves, it felt that this was a far as they could go without just sending us to a vending machine.

But why are we so obsessed with the drive-thru concept, where did it all begin and what does the future hold?

Where did it all start?

Our love affair of the drive-thru filtered through from America, and anybody who has visited will have seen that almost every street corner has a drive-thru restaurant open with neon lights flashing to attract customers.

You may be amazed to know that the first ever food drive-thru wasn’t a McDonalds.  The first ‘official’ drive-thru was reportedly at Red’s Giant Hamburger on Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri. (I’m now torn between making a Simpsons reference or simply directing Reds BBQ to get on this piece of history and open a drive-thru BBQ hatch!) 

It should be noted that the first recorded use of a drive-thru was actually for the Grand National Bank in Missouri in 1930 where you were only allowed to deposit money. Some would joke that the age of drive-thrus literally taking your money hasn’t really moved on much from this, except you now tend to get something in return.

The first drive-tru McDonalds was created in 1975 in Arizona to serve military members whilst Max Hamburgers opened the first Northern Europe drive-thru in Piea in 1981.

The UK Drive-Thru

It wasn’t until 1986 that McDonalds opened their first drive-thru restaurants in Fallowfield, Dudley, Neasden and Coventry. With the introduction of franchise-operated restaurants their total number of drive-thru restaurants in the UK has grown to over 1100. As predicted more fast food outlets followed suit with Burger King and KFC the most notable followers.

Then came the coffee revolution. The first drive-thru Starbucks was created in 1994 but their drive-thru set up didn’t make its way over to Europe until 1998 and their first UK drive-thru store didn’t open until ten years later in Cardiff Bay. Expansion continued with the introduction of franchise-operated stores and Costa Coffee (now owed by Coca-Cola) have followed suit with 160 drive-thru’s across the UK. 

The team at DTP have been excited to work on over 300 of these drive-thru’s throughout their transport planning careers starting as far back as 2011, working on the St Helens Starbucks drive-thru site.

The concept is now being taken up by more brands, with Greggs being one of the newest entrants to the market. The first Greggs drive-thru opened in Greater Manchester quickly followed by two stores in Blackburn and Leicestershire that were both supported by TP team members.

Why do we like them so much?

There was probably a level of curiosity that first drew us to want to drive-thru, coupled with the UK’s obsession of following America’s lead in retail and restaurants. It seems that this has turned into a ‘customer experience’ all of its own, evident from the number of videos uploaded to YouTube of people having a drive-thru experience. Couple this with Carpool Karaoke and James Corden will probably be releasing ‘Drive-Thru Divas’ once social distancing is removed.

Drive-thrus were marketed at the convenience factor, especially if you are on the way to work or have a car full of kids after football practice. It also solves the problem of customers shying away from a full car park, allowing a purchase to still be made even if you can’t go in.

There’s no getting away from the idea that for some it is just pure convenience that you don’t need to get out of your car. We have all seen the people who drive-thru and then sit in the car park anyway to consume their purchases, the fluffy ducks on their pyjamas just visible through the passenger side window.

The Drive-Thru set up has increased access to these items, turning the McDonalds Happy Meal from a birthday treat into a regular part of some children’s diets. Coupled with the ability to keep some drive-thru operations open 24 hours, the convenience factor has had a huge impact on the lives of their customers.

The future of the Drive-Thru?

The current situation shows a huge spike in demand for Drive-Thru’s where they are becoming available, although it is likely that this will settle down as the UK gets used to future COVID measures and the initial cravings of the UK public are satisfied.

But with the big brands seemingly a step ahead in providing services with less contact, what could the future hold for the drive-thru?

One thing we had started to see before COVID hit was more independents looking at providing a drive-thru offering. We worked particularly closely with an independent coffee shop who had plans to turn a disused shipping container into a drive-thru coffee shop on an industrial estate. We may see more independents exploring this idea, especially with the surge in shipping container retail and leisure facilities being proposed.

We have also seen some of the larger brands create a smaller ‘pod’ type building that only provide takeaway and drive-thru sales. These are usually seen on your exit route from motorway services to catch you as you ‘forgot to grab a coffee’. We could see these emerge from services to more accessible places – although for some reason I’m now imagining little SpongeBob SquarePants Pineapples on a retail park.

The takeaway serving hatch may also make a comeback and is one of the things that could quickly be implemented for many shops to comply with social distancing, especially if their seating capacity has been cut down drastically. 

Similarly, we may see more products offered by vending machine. Recent innovations have gone beyond just a cup of coffee, with false eyelashes now available by vending machine and in some countries a machine will pick your meal, microwave it and then provide it to you. 

The Search for an Experience

Whatever the future lies we know that the world is being built on a search for experiences. With most items now available at the touch of a button, people are searching high and low for their next experience to fill their hobby time, or the time they used to spend walking up and down high streets. 

With social media it has been easier to get these experiences in front of people. For example, on a trip to Las Vegas over 5 years ago I discovered a cupcake ATM. Now this was literally attached to a cupcake shop that I could’ve walked in and purchased but instead I played the game, punched in my order and waited for the cupcake to arrive. All the magic (and the extra 50 cents) disappeared before my eyes as I saw the lady forcefully plonk the cupcake in the ATM machine from the other side of the counter. But there was still a queue behind me….

It looks like the drive-thru is here to stay for the time being, and out of every crisis a wave of innovation tends to follow – I’m actually excited to see how the drive-thru will evolve and how the planning system will respond to developers taking the first steps towards the future after COVID.

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