There was a time when your local McDonald’s was the ideal spot for a 6-year-old’s birthday party. Its PlayPlaces had ball pits and slides where children could spend hours, post-Happy Meal.
McDonald’s launched PlayPlaces in the 1970s in an effort to build brand loyalty in children by emphasizing a family-friendly environment. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find one. That’s not just due to safety and health concerns (ball pits are known to be bacterial cesspits). People just aren’t hanging out at fast food joints the way they used to.
By the end of 2021, dine-in visits to fast food chains had fallen to just 14 percent of restaurant traffic, compared to 28 percent pre-pandemic, according to the market research firm NPD Group. When it comes to burgers and fries, people are increasingly scarfing them down in their homes, at their offices, in their cars — anywhere, really, but in the restaurant.
Now, McDonald’s and other fast food and fast casual giants are betting on the “digital kitchen” — sleek, compact stores that harness automation and digitalization to have diners ordering through mobile apps or digital kiosks — to get diners in and out in record time. Meanwhile, chains are “demolishing” their dining rooms, or shrinking them, in order to meet the demand of drive-thru and digital ordering, Steven Baker, an architect at Harrison French and Associates who works on fast food restaurant design and development, wrote in an article last year. For McDonald’s, Sweetgreen, and others, reducing seating means chains can open smaller stores, saving on expensive real estate, especially in urban areas.
The big transformation taking place inside restaurants also threatens to change how the industry looks at labor. In April, McDonald’s announced hundreds of layoffs in its corporate offices as part of a larger strategy to open new locations while investing more into digital, delivery, and drive-thru. And for all fast food and fast casual restaurants, whether it’s third-party delivery apps, automated kiosks, or even food delivery by drone, the glittering promise of tech is the ability to offload to machines more and more of the tasks performed by people paid an hourly wage.
Last year, 85 percent of fast food restaurant orders were to-go, according to data from NPD. Drive-thrus are busier than ever, with roughly three-quarters of orders being placed at a drive-thru. Foodservice consulting firm Technomic found that 73 percent of all orders at limited-service restaurants (places where you pay in advance and don’t typically have table service, including both fast food and fast casual restaurants) were either carryout or delivery in the first half of 2022.
McDonald’s has responded to the shift by opening a new dining room-less concept restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, designed around digital orders and more efficient pickups. Sweetgreen has also launched a few locations without seating, including its first digital-order-only, pick-up-only location in DC in late 2022; it will open two fully automated restaurants in 2023. Chipotle, too, has been dabbling with smaller, digital kitchens offering only pick-up or drive-thru, while Panera Bread, a sandwich-serving staple with booths and tables galore in the suburbs, is opening smaller stores with less seating in urban areas, as well as to-go-only stores. Digital sales now account for half of its total system sales, according to the company, and a spokesperson told Vox in an email that the company is “redefining its dining experience to serve today’s guest in an increasingly off-premise world.”
Burger King, KFC, Wingstop, the list goes on. At IHOP’s nascent Flip’d locations, all the food is packaged to go, and there’s limited seating — the modern, urban evolution of a chain famous for being a drunken late-night refuge.
Even Starbucks — the chain that has long billed itself as an inviting hangout, engineered to always smell like freshly roasted coffee — is leaning into takeout. Though its stores reduced seating at first due to the coronavirus, some locations are making that reduction permanent. The WSJ reported that Starbucks plans to open 400 new takeout- or delivery-only stores in the next three years.
All of this is happening not because the fast food industry is struggling and trying to cut its costs, but for the exact opposite reason. “It’s having a renaissance,” says Adam Chandler, author of a book about the fast food industry called Drive-Thru Dreams.
McDonald’s is a particular standout; it reported sales growth of more than 10 percent in 2022, recording a profit of $6.1 billion, after increasing prices by about 10 percent in 2022, too. Cost no longer seems to deter customers. As one analyst remarked during the company’s Q1 2023 earnings call, fast food delivery is booming even though it’s more expensive, diluting the value proposition 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 fries arrive to them 20 to 30 minutes later, slightly soggy,” Chandler says.
“The convenience driver has become more and more important as the years have passed,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association. “Even before the pandemic, about 61 percent of fast food sales were off-premise.” After reaching a high of almost 90 percent during lockdowns, they’re now still hovering around 75 percent, according to Riehle.
If fast food restaurants become less of a place to eat and hang out and more of a pit stop — a transitory space to pick up or hand off food — it also offers chains the opportunity to dramatically cut one of the industry’s most vexing operating costs: paying human employees. “Another part of this whole thing is wrapped up in labor, and how they can maximize profits by automating a lot of this,” Chandler says.
The industry has tried to fix the current labor shortage by raising wages, but the shortage has doggedly persisted, with a recent National Restaurant Association survey showing that six in 10 restaurant operators say they’re understaffed. The fact that the shortage persists shows that the pay increases aren’t quite the appetizing draw restaurants hoped they would be for workers, who may feel burned out by the grueling, often dangerous industry. The push for automation in restaurants also comes as the industry is fighting tooth and nail to reverse a new California law establishing a governmental body to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers.
The future of fast food, as idealized by restaurants, involves robots taking orders, cooking them, and delivering them right to your car.
“You’re seeing a lot of big growth in the chains, and they’re taking this moment to recalibrate and figure out their next strategies,” Chandler says.
Restaurants’ no-dining-room experiments coincide with the beefing-up of drive-thrus, which became more popular post-pandemic and also face significant bottlenecks (see: long lines overflowing onto main roads). Taco Bell’s new concept restaurant has four drive-thru lanes where food is delivered directly to the customer’s car via a vertical lift. (There is no dining room.) The demand for drive-thru has been such a growth area for fast food that even full-service restaurants are adding them.
Consumers have a fairly short amount of patience for their fast food order to be ready. According to a 2020 Deloitte report, 75 percent of consumers say waiting up to 30 minutes for their food delivery is reasonable. For fast food, 42 percent of diners said they expected their orders in five minutes or less. Fast food chains are using a host of new tech to speed up orders and delivery times: Voice bots to improve the accuracy and efficiency of drive-thru orders; apps and in-store kiosks so customers can place their orders without ever having to interact with a human. They’re even using location data that lets employees know when a customer is nearing the store to pick up their food, and experimenting with containers and packaging to ensure that food doesn’t get soggy during delivery.
“If the pandemic did one thing, it was to teach the typical American restaurant patron how to use digital ordering,” Riehle says. “The critical importance of digital ordering cannot be overstated.”
While fast food restaurants might want to fully automate, it’ll take some convincing and acclimation. Customers are a little wary of it — according to a survey by brand strategy firm Big Red Rooster, almost a third say that they don’t want to see robots preparing their food. It’s a departure from how people viewed fast food when it first appeared on the scene in the early 20th century. In a time before a uniform health code, the mechanization and consistency of fast food was a comfort, says Chandler. The allure of White Castle — the first fast food chain in the US, having opened in 1921 — was that it “standardized the look of the restaurants” and showed people a “very clean, well-lit place to dine.”
“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 says.
But whatever discomfort diners may feel about a robot fry cook, automating the fast food experience to be an even faster, to-go experience is the big-dollar-sign future for the industry — running a fast food restaurant, especially if you’re just a franchisee, is a fairly small-margin business. While dining in has made a comeback since the lockdowns, it’s still not back at pre-pandemic levels. It’s unclear if it will ever fully recover — or if we’ve simply entered a new era of enjoying fast food outside of the restaurant. Just as car culture gave rise to the fast food experience we’ve known for the past half-century, the smartphone is now ushering it into its next iteration, for a more atomized world where commuters and road trippers don’t have to pause at all for their meals.
Something stands to be lost with the shrinking of dining rooms and expansion of drive-thrus, says Chandler. The fast food joint often serves as a “third place,” a stand-in for the lack of other public spaces and institutions offering a neutral place to hang out. “When I was reporting [for my book], I would go to small towns in the Plains states,” he says, “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 going away — to see the stores’ footprints reducing in size, where you see this enormous emphasis on smaller or fewer dining rooms and more drive-thru lanes, speaks to a movement away from those third places,” Chandler says.