Fast-food joints consider drive-thru only: What it means for truckers

A recent announcement by Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor hit truck drivers right in their gut. He said in an earnings call that the company has a “new appetite to look at drive-thru-only restaurants.” In other words, no dining-in for truck drivers or anyone else for that matter.

They’re not the only fast-food restaurant to consider that transition. Quick service restaurants—or QSR in industry lingo—with plans to reduce or eliminate in-dining service and focus instead on drive-thru trade. McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC and others are also moving towards smaller or non-existent dining rooms in the future.

Where does that leave semi drivers who crave a quick burger and fries?

“What is that relationship going to look like for truckers when the digital restaurant real estate is on their phone; how do QSRs get food into their hands?” asked Sam Oches, editor of trade publication QSR and their Drive-Thru study released in October. “That’s what restaurants will have to look at. I think there’s obviously an opportunity for them to solve that for truckers, because it’s a big demographic they want to serve.”

Blame the pandemic, partially at least. “We were heading there before the pandemic, but what has really accelerated during the pandemic is the idea of off-premises business,” Oches noted. “The pandemic accelerated off-premise dining incredibly to a point that all of the major restaurant companies are really starting to reconsider the blueprint for how they will grow in the future and shrink the dining rooms and increase the presence of off-premises solutions.”

Before the pandemic, drive-thru represented 70% of QSR business. “Now, it’s more than like 95% of these restaurants’ business,” Oches said. “Even if there’s a vaccine tomorrow, I don’t think that goes away.”

Not all the news is bad for drivers. For one thing, many drivers visit truck stops for QSR dining. These restaurants will continue to have limited indoor dining and will boost their grab-and-go business at these easier-to-park facilities. Second, QSRs are looking at other ways to serve drivers such as walking out their order to the curb or dropping it in a small box where a driver can park.

“Even if there’s not a dining room somewhere, I would bet you that these restaurants will be in tune with truckers’ needs by providing them accessibility through the app to run food out to them,” said Oches.

He emphasized that even though QSRs know how important truck drivers are to their business, they don’t yet have an industry-wide or even company-wide plans to serve them.

Some QSRs are already figuring it out, though. A McDonald’s in Chisholm, Minn., near Highway 169, has a drive-thru lane that can accommodate tractor-trailers. Unfortunately, a video making the rounds of social media (the video is blurry at first) showed what happened when a semi tried to make it through a traditional McDonald’s drive-thru.

In Fordyce, Ark., a Sonic restaurant built a step-up platform about two years ago so servers could reach truck windows. Drivers can order through the app or at the lot. The service was an immediate hit with drivers who spread the word on Facebook. At the time, a Sonic supervising partner said publicly that they were serving about 500 trucks a month with checks about $2.50 higher than four-wheelers. The service is still active, but company officials declined to offer current statistics. An employee messaged American Trucker about today’s situation: “We’re serving more truck drivers than ever, but we’ll get you in and out pretty quick.”

Gary Stibel, CEO of the New England Consulting Group, which councils QSR clients among others, explained that although there’s no question that dining rooms are getting smaller and drive-thru’s are becoming more important to the eateries, it will not disappear entirely.

“Rural America still likes to dine in,” he said. “And you’re going to see more curbside delivery. Last time I looked out my window, it was not all that tough to identify an 18-wheeler versus a four-wheel SUV. So, it’d be very easy for somebody to spot an 18-wheeler and walk out there with two sandwiches and a beverage.”

This article was originally published by American Trucker.