While drive thrus have always been a popular option for quick service restaurants, the demand for drive thrus across the restaurant industry has shot up dramatically since the pandemic began.

But incorporating a drive thru into a new build – or adding one to your existing restaurant – is not as simple as it might seem. Even seasoned restaurant brands find the process is much more complex than they originally anticipated.

It can be a lonely and costly road to go down; we’ve seen those attempts and they don’t end well. But as with anything in construction, planning upfront will help prevent issues down the road.

Before we get to the Top 10 Questions to ask yourself, here are a few ways to get your project started on the right foot:

  • Hire a Professional: Hire a drive thru consultant who can help walk you through the design process; from the turning radius of the cars to the height of the drive thru window, it’s an intricate process that requires the right experience at the planning table.
  • Take Note: Take the time to go through dozens of drive thrus and take notes. What works well? What is inefficient? Walk into the restaurant and notice how they are delivering food from the kitchen to the drive thru. Your observations are meaningful and will help inform your design.
  • Ask around: Check with restaurant owners & managers, architects, construction managers, etc. to learn what they know, and even what they would have done differently so you can learn from them.

Top 10 Questions to Ask

Before you begin to draw up your plans, here are ten questions to ask yourself and your partners:

  1. Can my Physical Site Handle a Drive Thru? The site itself will dictate not only if you can have a drive thru, but also how it is designed. Is your restaurant on a hill? Most likely, a drive thru won’t work – your customers can’t be on an angle when they come up to the window. Some municipalities require a certain lot size for a drive thru as well. Your space will also inform everything from how many drive thru lanes you can have to where cars will stack to where your menu board can be set up, and more. Typically most drive thru locations start on the right side of the building and go around the back because that’s where the kitchen is located. Ask your general contractor what’s possible for your space.

  2. Is your Existing Technology Compatible with a Drive Thru? Consider how your existing technology will be incorporated into your drive thru experience. For example, how is the app going to work in relation to the drive thru? Will there be a separate line for those who have already placed their order via the app? How is payment going to work?  Will a self-pay option be available? Think about the physical space you will need to make your existing technology work effectively. You don’t want everything you’ve built up to this point to go into the trash- you can make it compatible with some planning.

  3. What New Technology Should I Consider During the Pre-Construction Phase? Many drive thrus rely on vehicle detection and monitoring that must be built into the concrete before it is poured. These products, which can include everything from inductive loops to radar sensors, will notify your employees when a customer is at the menu board and at the window – helping inform everything from staffing to future designs. This type of technology needs to be part of your planning upfront, so be sure to consider your needs before breaking ground.

  4. How can I Best Incorporate Branding & Signage? Since your drive-thru customer might never enter your restaurant, think about what branding exposure you want to offer for a meaningful brand experience. The signs in and around your drive through serve various purposes and need to be worked into the layout. From a marketing perspective you want the signage to be true to your brand. From an operational perspective you want customers to know exactly where to go and what to do every step of the way. Your city or municipality will have requirements on this as well, see question #8 for more on this.

  5. What Can I do Proactively to Encourage Safety? – Ask yourself if you are planning for bad drivers, because they are all over the roads. Do you have enough of a turning radius so there is space for cars to easily turn around the curve without hitting anything? Pay special attention to where pedestrians will be crossing out of your building and into the parking lot. Adding bollards can provide added protection for the building, your employees, and your guests but can also damage cars so you’ll want to carefully design the space with safety in mind.

  6. Have I Checked my Municipality’s Drive Thru Requirements? – Check with your municipality on any requirements that might be needed for permitting. Some cities, for example, require an automatic drive thru window where an infrared ray will detect when the window should open, saving on heating and cooling costs. Many automatic windows also have an air curtain, where air is pushed down as soon as the window opens to prevent the temperature-controlled air from leaving the restaurant. Some municipalities don’t allow drive thrus at all, or make the process particularly cumbersome, so be sure to check with your city before you begin design.

  7. How Can I Set Up my Interior Layout for Success? How are you going to lay out your space to cater to a drive thru window? Think about how the food will physically get from the prep area to the window – do you have a second prep area for drive thru orders? Is there space for a P.O.S. station next to the window? What about an ice dispenser or a soft drink machine next to the drive thru? Efficiency is everything, and considering your interior layout will make an enormous difference in your operations.

  8. What will the Flow Look Like for my Customers? You’ll want to consider the number of cars that will stack up while they’re waiting for their order, and how long it will take to go through so the line doesn’t get clogged up. You don’t want to have – and in many cities can’t have – cars waiting in the street.

  9. Behind the Wheel: What Will the Driving Experience be? Once a customer sees the signage, what will the driving experience be? Do you have space for a preview board so customers can review the menu before ordering? If you have an extensive menu, have you considered simplifying it for the drive thru experience to help with speed? Will there be a single line of cars or do you have the space for dual lanes leading up to the window? What about different windows for ordering and for paying? Consider weather as part of this experience as well; for example you’ll want to incorporate an overhang above your window(s) to protect your customers from the elements.

  10. Can I Give Customers an Out? If you have the space, it’s also nice to give people an exit option if the line is too long, and so they don’t feel trapped in line. No one wants angry customers by the time they get to the window, so giving people an “out” is a good option if it’s possible.

Including a drive thru window isn’t as straightforward as it appears, but these questions can be helpful starting points if you are considering this revenue stream for your business. Walk up windows are another option, but talk to your restaurant-focused architect and general contractor about what is feasible in your space.