When people hear the word “innovation,” restaurants aren’t usually the first thing that comes to mind. But the COVID pandemic forced the hospitality industry as a whole to change the way they do things. Contactless delivery, drive-thrus, and online ordering made it convenient for customers to continue enjoying fast food even when dine-in options were unavailable.

Now, the future of the fast food industry is pointing more towards a cross-channel world.

What Is the Future of the Fast Food Industry and Growth?

The future of fast food restaurants is all about convenience and giving customers options. Many customers are happy to dine in at their favorite establishments again, but they also want the option of picking up or going through the drive-thru on occasion.

fast food of the future

Redefining the Drive-Thru

We’re already seeing the fast food of the future with all of the recent transformations in drive-thrus.

  • Chipotle recently opened its 3,000th location, and it features a digital order drive-thru pickup lane. Among the new units Chipotle launched in 2021, 80% had these drive-thru lanes.
  • 25% of Shake Shack’s new openings will have either a walk-up or drive-thru option.
  • Applebee’s has also jumped on the drive-thru bandwagon. Their new store in Texarkana, Arkansas now has a convenient drive-thru for guests.

Competition for drive-thru options is getting fiercer by the day, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Mobile Ordering is Here to Stay

Mobile ordering through branded apps is the future of automation in fast food. App ordering saves time, allows the customer to make their selection carefully, and dramatically reduces the risk of order errors.

A recent survey from Bluedot asked consumers what they felt had improved the most about their fast food experience. More than half said that “mobile app ordering” was the top improvement. Curbside pickup and web ordering weren’t far behind.

One-third of respondents said they would place more orders through mobile apps moving forward.

What about those who are still uncomfortable returning to the dining room? More than half said they were using mobile or online ordering.

But customers are demanding more from their mobile ordering and drive-through experiences. According to that survey, the top items on customers’ wish lists were:

  • Designated lanes for mobile order pickups
  • Warming stations for foods being picked up
  • Automatic check-in for arriving at curbside
  • Text-to-order options

Customers want a frictionless experience that allows them to get in, get what they want, and leave. In-store ordering kiosks, mobile ordering, and web ordering options help create this experience at the start, while curbside, pickup, and drive-thrus complete it.

More consumers are downloading mobile restaurant apps for easy and convenient ordering options. In 2021 alone, 24 million people downloaded the McDonald’s app.

Loyalty programs and native apps will drive the future of fast food mobile applications forward. More fast food establishments are realizing the value of implementing their own programs and applications to serve customers, most of which prefer to interact directly with restaurants.

Consumers Demand Speedy Orders

Customers are now placing more mobile orders through restaurant apps. Lower prices aren’t the only driving factor here. Customers are more interested in saving time by skipping the line.

the future of automation in fast food

What else do consumers love about mobile fast food restaurant apps?

  • Quick and easy ordering
  • Loyalty programs
  • Exclusive deals
  • Easy payment options

Simply put, it’s quicker and more convenient for most consumers to download an app, place an order and pick it up from the shelf than it is to do things the old-fashioned way.

While mobile ordering, pickup options, and drive-thrus offer convenience, they can still cause friction if customers have to wait. Many fast food restaurants are tackling this problem by implementing mobile-order-only lanes and pick-up lines inside.

Consumers are growing increasingly impatient. Recent research found that the vast majority of consumers said they would leave a drive-thru lane if it had 4-7 cars waiting in line.

Consumers Don’t Want to Wait for Deliveries

Delivery is still a convenient option for consumers, but wait times can be a major turn-off. Nearly half of recently surveyed consumers said they would wait 40 minutes for delivery, but anything longer than that is a no-go. Less than a third said they would wait longer than 41 minutes.

Ultimately, customers say they prefer to pick up food than to wait such a long time for deliveries.

That being said, there’s still a growing demand for delivery, especially among Gen Zers. In a recent survey, more than 80% of Gen Zers said they would likely order from their favorite fast food restaurant if delivery were an option.

The Future of Tipping

Although tipping is an option at fast food restaurants, it’s not expected in the same way it’s expected at a full-service restaurant. But digital ordering options have started changing this attitude.

Some brands have gone as far as promising to offer higher hourly wages with tipping. Digital platforms make it easier and more comfortable for customers to leave tips. However, a recent survey found that 46% of respondents did not tip for web or mobile orders.

Some consumers will tip regardless of how they are ordering (in-person or online).

The Future of Fast Food is Multi-Channel

According to the 2022 Restaurant Friction Index, 41% of a restaurant’s average sales came from digital channels. Just 26% of orders came from phone calls and 32% from the restaurant’s brick-and-mortar location.

Orders were received from at least two different channels at any given time. Fast food restaurants must be willing and able to adapt to these demands if they hope to remain competitive.

For fast food restaurants, a multichannel approach is expected by consumers. They want options when ordering their food, making payments, and receiving their food. Restaurants that can meet these demands will find themselves ahead of the competition.

Providing a positive customer experience is the key to building a loyal customer base, and in order to achieve that, fast food restaurants must be able to serve customers at their preferred places – whether that’s an online app, in-store kiosk, or at-the-counter.