One of the notable features of the hospitality industry this past year has been the snaking queues of cars leading up to the counters of the drive-thru units of McDonald’s, Costa, KFC and a growing number of other foodservice operators.

These outlets have been the perfect creation for servicing diners in a covid-19-ridden landscape where even the most cautious of individuals have felt safe venturing out for takeaway food while cossetted in the controlled environment of their own vehicle.

The drive-thru has moved on from being largely used for meals that are taken home to also fuelling “car picnics” where people park up and eat from within their vehicle. This broadening of the use of the drive-thru has led to the rise of the term A-commerce or auto commerce in the US. 

Consumer appetite for the drive-thru has not surprisingly led to a significant rise in revenues, with spend up 45% at such units during September to November, according to the NPD Group, and this will have at least been maintained through the ongoing third lockdown. 

Needless to say there has been a serious increase in interest in drive-thru units among foodservice operators. Starbucks said 80% of its new openings will have a drive-thru lane, Tim Horton’s has been opening drive-thrus as part of its plan to have outlets across the UK, and drive-thrus have featured in the majority of sites opened by Costa in 2020. Meanwhile at Greggs, sales at stores accessed by car have been roughly 10% higher than the rest of its estate and chief executive Roger Whiteside has stated drive-thrus have been the “most heavily competed property market there is”. 

Long-time drive-thru operator McDonald’s even launched a “Click & Serve” option. This enables orders to be made through its app and the food delivered to the customer’s car while they wait in the car park. The company stated diners do not even have to “lean out of your car window or any of the usual stuff”. I take the usual stuff to mean interactions with the McDonald’s servers, which even at the most convivial of times must surely be banter-lite. 

This is all rather worrying. It suggests that, for a significant number of people, all roads seem to be leading to the car. Covid-19 has driven people away from using public transport and fuelled a major increase in second-hand car sales. While new cars have been shunned – as people keep their existing models – there has been a record increase in demand for used models as people have added second or third vehicles for their families, according to data from Auto Trader. In the US, this driving revival is predicted to lead to some sort of “carmageddon”.

While this is all great news for used car dealers, it is not so good for the underlying need of people to adopt more sustainable lifestyles and reduce their carbon footprints. It also, undoubtedly, fuels the cautious mindset that has become the norm for many people as covid-19 has gone on and the roadmap to the exit lane still involves many more weeks of restrictive lockdowns. 

Research from Redfield & Wilton Strategies found an extremely cautious public sentiment with 54% of people stating restrictions should only be lifted once most of the UK has been vaccinated. Half of the respondents to its survey believe restaurants and bars should not be allowed to open until May, June or even later. While only a modest 22% believe they should be allowed to open either immediately or sometime in March.

Clearly, overcoming this mindset of extreme caution will be critical to the industry when it begins to reopen its doors. I’m also hoping the rise of the drive-thru and people living their lives from within the inside of a car will prove to only be a fleeting moment in time in the UK – for the saviour of the hospitality industry, the sanity of these car dwellers, and also the planet.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.