OPINIONRetail Foodservice

Fast-Food Restaurant Seating: Will We Ever Go Back?

Do big chains such as McDonald's, Dunkin even need their dining rooms?

lempert report

COVID-19 forced the closure of fast-food dining areas, but the drive thru has made all the difference. In fact, it's been the lifeline for many chains. The question is: As these restaurants try to reimagine their interiors to remove tables and alter seating, do we even need these areas? Dining rooms add a ton of expense and maintenance.

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

They report that at many chains, including McDonald’s, the drive-thru accounted for as much as 70% of revenue before the crisis. 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.

There is a problem, however, that these restaurants were not built to handle the kind of volume that is being demanded through that drive-up lane or window where customers are fearful and don’t completely roll down their windows and sometimes aren’t wearing masks. The workers have to cook and now serve the bags of food in cramped conditions, not being physically able to social distance from their fellow workers or customers in their cars, and in many cases without personal protection equipment

Some chains, like McDonalds, have converted their seating areas to workspaces for employees in order to achieve social distancing,

Ultimately, according to an interview in The New York Times, 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, he said, the format has faced criticism from public health officials and urban beautification campaigns, prompting cities such as Minneapolis to ban the construction of new drive-thrus. A decade ago Dunkin' Donuts expanded its drive-thru lanes, and sales soared. 

It might just be the time where we see fast-food chains revert to drive-thrus and pickup windows.

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