You may never eat inside a fast food restaurant again

The future of fast food may involve no human connection at all as consumers increasingly choose delivery.
There was a time when a 6-year-old’s birthday celebration was perfect for your neighborhood McDonald’s. After finishing a Happy Meal, kids may spend hours playing in its Play Places, which contained slides and ball pits.

among an effort to foster brand loyalty among kids by stressing a family-friendly setting, McDonald’s introduced Play Places in the 1970s. You would struggle to find one today. That’s not simply because ball pits are known to be bacterial cesspits, raising safety and health concerns. Simply said, fewer people frequent fast food restaurants than in the past.

According to market research firm NPD Group, dine-in visits to fast food chains had decreased to barely 14 percent of restaurant traffic by the end of 2021 from 28 percent before the epidemic. People are increasingly eating burgers and fries outside of restaurants, such as at their homes, offices, cars, and other public places.

In order to get customers in and out quickly, McDonald’s and other big names in fast food and fast casual are now placing their bets on the “digital kitchen” – slick, small restaurants that use automation and digitization to let customers order through smartphone applications or digital kiosks. According to Steven Baker, an architect at Harrison French and Associates who specializes in the design and development of fast food restaurants, chains are “demolishing” or “shrinking” their dining rooms in order to fulfill the demand of drive-thrus and digital ordering, he wrote in an article last year. Reducing seating allows fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Sweetgreen to open more compact locations, saving them money on pricey real estate, especially in metropolitan areas.

The significant change that is currently occurring in restaurants poses a danger to the way that the sector views labor. As part of a bigger strategy to establish new restaurants while investing more in digital, delivery, and drive-thrus, McDonald’s announced hundreds of layoffs in its corporate headquarters in April. And for all fast food and fast casual restaurants, whether it’s third-party delivery apps, automated kiosks, or even meal delivery by drone, the shining promise of technology is the capacity to shift to machines an increasing number of the duties currently carried out by people who are paid an hourly rate.

According to NPD data, fast food restaurant orders last year accounted for 85% of all orders. More orders are being placed at drive-thrus than ever before, accounting for around three-quarters of all transactions. In the first half of 2022, carryout or delivery accounted for 73 percent of all orders at limited-service restaurants (those that accept payments in advance and don’t normally offer table service, including fast food and fast casual restaurants).

In response to the change, McDonald’s has opened a new dining room-free concept restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, built around digital ordering and quicker pickups. A few sites without sitting have also been opened by Sweetgreen, including its first digital-order-only, pick-up-only facility in DC in late 2022; two fully automated restaurants will be opened in 2023. While Panera Bread, a sandwich institution with a ton of booths and tables in the suburbs, is opening smaller stores with fewer seating in urban areas as well as to-go-only stores, Chipotle has also been experimenting with smaller, digital kitchens offering just pick-up or drive-through service. According to the company, digital sales now make up half of its overall system sales. A spokesman for the company told Vox in an email that it is “redefining its dining experience to serve today’s guest in an increasingly off-premise world.”

The list includes Burger King, KFC, Wingstop, and more. All of the food is packaged to go and there is just a small amount of sitting at IHOP’s new Flip’d locations, the modern, urban version of a chain noted for being a drunken late-night haven.

Even Starbucks, the brand that has long marketed itself as a warm gathering place with a constant aroma of freshly roasted coffee, is embracing takeout. Even though the coronavirus first caused its stores to restrict seats, some of them are now doing so permanently. According to the WSJ, Starbucks intends to open 400 additional takeout or delivery-only locations over the next three years.

All of this is taking place for the exact opposite reason from why the fast food business is struggling and attempting to cut prices. Drive-Thru Dreams author Adam Chandler claims that the fast food business is currently experiencing a “renaissance.”

McDonald’s stands out in particular; after raising prices by almost 10% in 2022, it recorded sales increase of more than 10% and a profit of $6.1 billion. Cost no longer seems to be a barrier for consumers. Fast food delivery is expanding while being more expensive, as one analyst noted during the company’s Q1 2023 conference call, eroding the appeal of a cheap meal. “Shockingly, in a lot of places, people are willing to pay double what they would pay to have a box of doughnuts and a large order of fries arrive to them 20 to 30 minutes later, slightly soggy,” claims Chandler.

According to Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association, “the convenience driver has gained importance over time.” Approximately 61 percent of fast food sales were made off-site even before the pandemic. According to Riehle, they have since dropped to roughly 75% after peaking at nearly 90% during lockdowns.

Fast food franchises have the chance to significantly reduce one of the industry’s most troublesome operational costs: paying human staff, if they shift from being places to dine and hang out to being pit stops, a transitory spot to pick up or drop off food. Another aspect of the whole process, according to Chandler, is labor, and how much of it can be automated in order to increase profitability.

The industry has attempted to address the current labor shortage by increasing pay, but the problem has stubbornly persisted as seen by a recent poll by the National Restaurant Association, which revealed that six out of ten restaurant owners feel they are understaffed. The fact that there is still a shortage demonstrates that the pay increases aren’t exactly the alluring attraction that restaurants believed they would be for workers, who may already be exhausted from the demanding and frequently dangerous work environment. The industry is fighting valiantly to overturn a new California legislation that creates a regulatory authority to boost the minimum pay for fast food workers, which is another reason why automation is being pushed in restaurants.

Restaurants envision robots taking orders, preparing food, and delivering it directly to your car in the future of fast food.

You’re seeing a lot of significant growth in the chains, and they’re using this time to reevaluate and plan their future moves, according to Chandler.

The trials by restaurants to eliminate the dining room coincide with the bolstering of drive-through lanes, which have been increasingly popular since the pandemic and likewise have substantial bottlenecks (see: lengthy queues spilling onto major roadways). The brand-new Taco Bell concept restaurant has four drive-through lanes where customers may order meals to be delivered directly to their cars via a vertical lift. No dining room exists. Even full-service restaurants are introducing drive-thrus because the demand for fast food has made them such a lucrative business.

Customers generally don’t wait long for their fast food orders to arrive. 75 percent of consumers believe that waiting up to 30 minutes for their meal delivery is fair, according to a 2020 Deloitte survey. 42 percent of consumers who ordered fast food said they anticipated receiving their orders in five minutes or less. To shorten order and delivery times, fast food businesses are utilizing a variety of modern technologies: Drive-thru orders will be more accurate and efficient thanks to voice bots; customers can place their orders through apps and in-store kiosks without ever speaking to a human. They’re even experimenting with containers and packing to prevent food from becoming mushy during delivery and using location data to alert staff when a customer is getting close to the store to pick up their food.

The pandemic, according to Riehle, “if it accomplished anything, it taught the typical American restaurant patron how to use digital ordering.” It is impossible to stress how crucial digital ordering is.

Fast food restaurants may want to totally automate, but it will take some persuasion and getting used to. Customers are hesitant about it; in a survey by brand marketing company Big Red Rooster, about a third of respondents said they didn’t want to see robots making their food. It differs from how fast food was perceived when it originally arrived in the early 20th century. Fast food’s mechanization and uniformity were comforting in an era before there was a standard health code, according to Chandler. Its attractiveness was that it “standardized the look of the restaurants” and provided customers a “very clean, well-lit place to dine.” White Castle was the first fast food chain in the US to open its doors in 1921.

“It’s funny, because nowadays — in the last 15 or 20 years — the idea of having a place look exactly the same when you go in is kind of dystopian,” he remarks.

Nevertheless, automating the fast food experience to be an even faster, to-go experience is the big-dollar-sign future for the sector. Running a fast food restaurant is a fairly low-margin company, especially if you’re simply a franchisee. Even though home dining has increased since the lockdowns, it hasn’t yet returned to its pre-pandemic proportions. Uncertainty surrounds whether it will ever fully return or whether we have simply entered a new age of eating fast food outside of restaurants. The smartphone is ushering in the next version of the fast food experience, for a more atomized world where commuters and road trippers don’t have to stop at all for their meals, much like how vehicle culture gave rise to the fast food experience we’ve known for the past 50 years.

According to Chandler, something will be lost if dining spaces get smaller and drive-thrus get bigger. Fast food restaurants frequently act as a “third place,” a substitute for the absence of other public places and establishments that provide a welcoming location to hang out. “When I was reporting [for my book], I would go to small towns in the Plains states,” he recalls, “and I would see the local Burger King is where a bunch of old timers meet every morning, have coffee and maybe a sandwich, and hang out.”

“To see the playgrounds disappearing — to see the store footprints shrinking, where you see this enormous emphasis on smaller or fewer dining rooms and more drive-through lanes, speaks to a movement away from those third places,” says Chandler.

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