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Drive-thrus are now a lifeline for fast-food chains

For decades, the fast-food drive-thru has been a greasy symbol of Americana, a roadside ritual for millions of travelers with a hankering for burgers and fries.

Now the drive-thru, with its brightly colored signage and ketchup-stained paper bags, has taken on a new importance in the age of social distancing.

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Over the last month and a half, the coronavirus pandemic has forced small, independent restaurants to close and Michelin star chefs to experiment with takeout. But despite the chaos, the nation’s drive-thrus have continued to churn out orders, providing a financial reprieve for chains like McDonald’s and Burger King even as fast-food workers have become increasingly concerned about the threat of infection.

While restaurant dining rooms sit empty, many people have started treating drive-thrus like grocery stores, making only occasional trips but placing larger orders. Popeyes has introduced “family bundles” to capitalize on the demand for bigger meals. Taco Bell is offering a promotion — free Doritos Locos Tacos on Tuesdays — that has increased traffic at some of its drive-thrus, overwhelming employees. And dine-in chains like Texas Roadhouse have converted empty parking lots into temporary drive-thru lanes.

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“For many restaurants, it’s an absolute savior,” said Jonathan Maze, the executive editor of Restaurant Business Magazine.

At many chains, including McDonald’s, the drive-thru accounted for as much as 70% of revenue before the crisis, generating billions of dollars for the industry every month. During the pandemic, sales have mostly held steady. In March, drive-thrus generated $8.3 billion across the fast-food industry, an increase from $8 billion in sales over the same period in 2019, according to data from the NPD Group, a market research firm.

But while it has shielded fast-food companies from the worst economic effects of the pandemic, the drive-thru has become a dangerous place for some low-wage workers, who cook and serve food in cramped conditions, often without access to protective equipment. In a number of states, workers at McDonald’s and other chains have staged walkouts and called for increased safety precautions.

Like other businesses that have remained open, drive-thrus are often tinged with fear. Some customers roll down their windows just far enough to stick out a pair of tongs. Others arrive armed with Lysol spray and plastic wrap.

“They’re just as scared of us as we are of them,” said Jamila Allen, 23, who works at a Freddy’s in North Carolina. An effort by McDonald’s locations in Los Angeles to lighten the mood of the workers with a calendar of ostensibly morale-boosting events like Crazy Sock Day was widely ridiculed as tone-deaf.

And despite repeated assurances from the major fast-food chains that gloves and face masks are on the way, anxious (and often maskless) employees working at drive-thrus struggle to maintain social distance, even with fewer workers on each shift.

“It’s impossible to keep 6 feet apart in the workplace and definitely impossible to stay that far away from customers,” said Terrence Wise, 40, a shift manager at a McDonald’s in Kansas City, Missouri. “If you’re taking a customer’s money and they cough or sneeze, you’re on alert and on edge.”

The Fight for $15 campaign, which works with fast-food employees to advocate a higher minimum wage, has identified dozens of McDonald’s workers in at least 14 states who have tested positive for the coronavirus. David Tovar, a McDonald’s spokesman, said the company has taken a range of steps to protect its workforce, including putting up barriers and allowing employees to use trays to slide cash and food back and forth. “Customers can lift it off the tray themselves so there’s no contact between the employee and the customer,” Tovar said.

Of all its rivals in the fast-food and casual dining business, McDonald’s was arguably in the best position to weather the pandemic. Over the last year, the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its drive-thrus, installing digital menu boards that prod customers to place larger, more expensive orders. At some locations, McDonald’s has experimented with cameras that recognize license plate numbers, allowing the company to tailor a list of suggested purchases from a customer’s previous orders.

During the pandemic, McDonald’s has made a handful of lower-tech adjustments, simplifying its menu to make lines move faster by cutting all-day breakfast and using only one type of lettuce. “The less choices you have for your crew to make, the more efficient and fast they can be,” Tovar said.

Taco Bell has also changed how it runs its drive-thrus. In the past, the company mostly filled relatively small orders. Now customers are buying much larger meals — enough food to put leftovers in the refrigerator, according to Mike Grams, the chain’s chief operating officer.

“They’re locked up in their house, and so when they come out, and they go to a drive-thru, they want to buy more,” Grams said.

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To accommodate those new ordering habits, the company has moved its drive-thru workers from the window to the now-vacant dine-in area, opening up space for cooks to assemble larger, more complicated orders in the kitchen.

But not every major chain has been able to come up with pandemic workarounds. Even before the coronavirus, chains like Ruby Tuesday and TGI Fridays, with large dining rooms designed for leisurely meals, had been struggling, closing locations as once-loyal patrons defected to faster, trendier options like Chipotle.

Without drive-thrus, these kinds of dine-in restaurants — many of which have taken on significant debt since the 2008 financial crisis — may struggle.

“We’ll see some large dining chains go under,” said Aaron Allen, a restaurant consultant. “It’ll finally be the death knell for them.”

Over the next year, food critics and industry experts say, the closures of large dine-in chains, mom-and-pop restaurants and fine-dining establishments could transform the restaurant industry, creating a more uniform, less vibrant landscape. The pandemic has exposed the gulf between the haves and have-nots, accelerating the demise of beloved but cash-strapped restaurants as the major fast-food chains continue to bring in revenue. Historically, recessions have benefited chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, which typically see higher sales when people are cutting back on spending.

Still, the pandemic has caused plenty of financial pain even for companies whose drive-thrus are humming. The chief executive of McDonald’s, Chris Kempczinski, has taken a 50% pay cut. After reporting a decline in sales on Thursday, Kempczinski warned that “the exact trajectory of our recovery is highly uncertain.”

And individual franchisees may also struggle, especially in the short term. In April, the National Owners Association — an advocacy group that represents some McDonald’s franchisees — clashed with the company over rent payments and other issues.

Overall, however, the corporate muscle of the big fast-food companies puts franchisees in an enviable position compared to most small businesses, especially independent restaurants. At Burger King and Popeyes, individual store owners have gotten help from corporate “franchisee liquidity teams” in applying for the loans under the government’s small-business relief program.

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A provision in that program also allowed big chains like Shake Shack to secure loans, even as smaller restaurants with less experience handling complicated paperwork missed out on funds.

After it was criticized by lawmakers and restaurateurs, Shake Shack returned the $10 million loan it had gotten through the program. One reason the chain needed that money in the first place: It does not have any drive-thrus. In the next few years, industry experts say, more dine-in chains like Texas Roadhouse may begin experimenting with the format, given how necessary it has been during the coronavirus shutdown.

Ultimately, the pandemic could provide “a moment of redemption” for drive-thrus, said Adam Chandler, the author of “Drive-Thru Dreams,” a history of fast food.

Since it emerged in the 1950s, the format has faced criticism from public health officials and urban beautification campaigns, prompting cities like Minneapolis to ban the construction of new drive-thrus.

These days, however, the experience of ordering a burger from behind the steering wheel feels more like a reasonable safety precaution than a cold transaction.

And to some, it also feels refreshingly normal.

“It speaks to something that is extremely unremarkable,” Chandler said. “That you can do that at a time of enormous upheaval is meaningful. It’s poignant in this really chaotic moment.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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