THOMPSON: Why advances in drive-thru technology aren't helping communities | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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THOMPSON: Why advances in drive-thru technology aren't helping communities



Not long ago, a 28-year-old man was arrested at a Bank of America drive-thru in Tampa, FL. He was not robbing the place, he was ordering a burrito. Just to be clear, ordering Mexican food at a bank is not against the law in Florida per se.

This guy, however, was arrested for driving under the influence after the police woke him up from his still-running car at the drive-up teller. The awakened driver - after lowering the car window simply asked, according to police, “You got my burrito?”

But we might see more of those under the influence of drugs and alcohol ordering food at banks. Because a lot of the newer quick-service restaurants - remember when we called them fast-food joints? - look, well, more like banks.

The Taco Bell in the photo accompanying my column has no window with an 18-year-old employee with mic and headphones. There are four drive-thru lanes…three devoted to patrons who use their mobile apps to order…who claim and pay for their food and drinks with unique QR codes.

The food comes to you in a cylinder that looks like a huge pneumatic tube…think bank. It’s actually a dumbwaiter between the second floor kitchen and the drive-thru. Those raised in an era of increasingly impersonal social media might be delighted…you don’t have to deal with humans directly...just use the app.

The new trend in fast-food restaurants, some already mistake them for banks.
The new trend in fast-food restaurants, some already mistake them for banks.
Image Credit: Photo courtesy Taco Bell

The whole process takes less than two minutes, truly fast food. Society does a better job of solving smaller problems than those that threaten our existence, I guess.

But, perhaps a soccer mom or dad with a team-load of kids aboard might see this as a major 21st Century breakthrough. Personally, I try my best to avoid carloads of eight-year-olds who celebrate a team victory with a combined drive-thru meal deal and farting contest.

Drive-thru technology doesn’t affect me as much as most others maybe. I don’t eat at fast-food places unless it is the cuisine of last resort. Some places - like 27 cities and towns across Canada - have fully or partially banned drive-through restaurants as a traffic nuisance and safety concern. Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver limit where and how many fast-food places can be opened.

That’s one reason Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Wendy’s - virtually all fast-food restaurants - are designing places with more lanes…and little or no sit-down areas. Restaurants claim customers won’t be discouraged by backed-up drive-thru lanes…and, indeed, they get their food faster.

Those in the quick-service restaurant biz call it a “drive-thru experience.” I guess you have to call it something. The fast-food industry is even using artificial intelligence to drive down labour costs and “enhance the customer experience.”

I’m not sure of that last part. Every time I get a nonsensical response from Siri on my iPhone, I wonder whether AI might go renegade on me during a fast-food drive-thru experience…suggesting Sonic’s Pickle-Juice Slush or Taco Bell’s Kit Kat Chocoladilla.

Drive-thrus have been around since a Texas Pig Stand offered the option to drivers not wanting to use their carhops…in 1921. But it was the COVID-19 pandemic that really changed things…with drive-thru traffic increasing by 30 percent across the fast-food industry from 2019 to 2021. And even though the pandemic has subsided…traffic remains up…and is even rising in many places.

I find myself admiring places banning or limiting fast-food joints. Opening more drive-thru lanes really isn’t an answer to safety or congestion issues anyway…no more than adding lanes to highways make them less congested or safer for very long.

After all, build it…and they will come…filling three or four lanes with vehicles as easily as they once filled one lane. And if you don’t think the problems of safety are getting worse…consider that personal injury lawyers already target advertising at people hurt in drive-thru restaurant accidents.

Some drive-thru companies like to talk about their local neighbourhood and community support, but the truth - and it should be obvious - is that sit-down restaurants where you can walk to and from your home build communities, not come-and-go drive-thru restaurants.

Think about drive-thru locations in terms of demographics. Cities and towns that rely on traffic…personal vehicles rather than public transportation...are where they build drive-thrus. Let’s admit truths, drive-thrus are about saving time and the convenience of not having to leave a car. There’s a place for that for people trying to cram more than 24 hours in a day, I guess.

As for me, not a fan of the food or the concept. Fast-food drive-thrus will likely continue to flourish. I’m guessing we haven’t seen the last person trying to order a burrito at a drive-through bank either.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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