Americans Avoid Businesses Without a Drive-Thru

No drive-thru? For nearly half of Americans, that's a deal-breaker.

New research shows that 47% of U.S. consumers would simply avoid going to a store that doesn't have a drive-thru. And twice as many people prefer using the drive-thru to going in-store (28% vs. 14%).

According to a survey of 2,000 U.S. adults conducted by One Poll for Dutch Bros, drive-thrus have become an essential part of daily life for many Americans.

People use the drive-thru for a variety of reasons, but most commonly to grab coffee (63%) or fast food (60%) at least three times per week.

And among those who prefer the drive-thru, one-third of them (32%) say they will "always" choose that option when it's available.

The most popular time to hit the drive-thru is mid-morning, sometime between 8 a.m. and 12 p.m. More than a quarter of consumers (27%), however, say coffee drive-thrus should be open after midnight and into the early hours of the morning. A similar cohort of night owls (26%) feel the same about fast-food restaurants.

Why is the drive-thru a must for so many Americans?

Speed, for one thing. Most respondents agree (61%) that the drive-thru tends to be the fastest option. Of course, it's also nice not getting out of the car. Among those who prefer the drive-thru, 61% said they appreciate the comfort of remaining seated.

"Getting out of the car to go into a restaurant adds friction to the ordering process," Bob Vergidis, chief visionary officer at told The Food Institute. "It's an added step and can be even more laborious for people with small children or pets in the car."

And in the spirit of efficiency, 52% of respondents said the drive-thru is appealing to avoid long lines. According to Vergidis, how the drive-thru line looks can even influence where a customer chooses to eat.

"Drive-thrus create an easy way to see how long the line is and how fast it is moving before deciding which restaurant to choose," said Vergidis. "They are a visual indicator of how long it will take for guests to receive orders."

Indeed, appearances are crucial to attract business, as 68% of Americans admit that they judge the quality of a store by their drive-thru.

How can businesses bolster the drive-thru experience?

Using technology to make the experience even more seamless is one way for businesses to capitalize on the convenience that consumers already expect from the drive-thru lane.

"Restaurants should think in a more integrated way," explained Vergidis. "Drive-thrus are one part of the ordering process and their value increases when coupled with order-ahead apps and the ability for restaurants to notify guests when their order is ready."

Some 46% of those surveyed said that a unique way to request or receive an order would make the whole experience more enjoyable.

But if a business can't make the process more efficient, at least make it pretty. More than half of U.S. consumers (56%) said they would appreciate colorful artwork or artistic decorations in the drive-thru lane. Food Institute Focus

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Top 5 Highest-Grossing U.S. Fast-Food Chains

As quick-service restaurants navigate the changing foodservice landscape, average unit volume (AUV) is a key metric that speaks to a chain's operational efficiency and overall success.

The AUV indicates the average annual sales that a brand earns per restaurant—a reflection of how consumers feel about the brand itself.

These are the top five highest-grossing fast-food chains in the U.S. by AUV, according to QSR Magazine.

1 – Chick-fil-A — $6.7 million

Chick-fil-A's steady but rapid growth is unrivaled. With only 2,837 stores, the brand generated $18.8 billion in U.S. systemwide sales in 2022. The year before, that figure was $16.7 billion. In 2020, it was $13.7 billion, and just four years ago in 2019, it was $12.2 billion.

To put it plainly, no restaurant brand in the QSR 50 has come this far, this quickly, and punches that high above its store count," wrote the authors of the 2023 QSR 50 report. Chick-fil-A trails only McDonald's and Starbucks in systemwide results despite the fact that McDonald's and Starbucks have 10,607 and 13,036 more U.S. stores, respectively.

And Chick-fil-A isn't even open on Sundays.

2 – Raising Cane's — $5.4 million

Raising Cane's, known for its chicken fingers, added a net 246 locations between 2019 and 2022 and saw total systemwide sales climb from $1.5 billion to $3.1 billion.

The brand is one to watch, with a current total of 646 U.S. stores and plenty of room to grow. Co-CEO AJ Kumaran believes Raising Cane's is on track to triple its current figure in the next seven years. When it happens, Kumaran believes the brand will generate $8 million per store averages, on par with what Chick-fil-A presently reports at its drive-thrus.

3 – Shake Shack — $3.8 million

With a footprint of only 287 U.S. locations, Shake Shack recorded an estimated $994 million in systemwide sales. The brand's growth strategy involves focusing on drive-thru and plans to open 10-15 drive-thru restaurants in 2023. The handful of drive-thrus that Shake Shack already has are performing as well as or better than company averages, earning more than $4 million with strong operating profit margins.

CEO Randy Garutti told QSR that the chain is "doing kind of a little bit of everything so that we can learn what we like best." That means experimenting with everything from how many drive-thru lanes to build, to how tech will be utilized, to where windows will go—all in pursuit of optimization.

4 – Whataburger — $3.7 million

Whataburger added 52 new stores last year, bringing its total units to 925 and generating $3.3 million in systemwide sales. The regional hamburger chain's sales jumped 24% in 2022 from $2.7 billion in 2021, with AUV increasing 16.5% to $3.7 million.

This month, Whataburger opened its first digital-forward restaurant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The location features brand new food lockers where customers can pick up mobile orders. These temperature-controlled lockers feature opaque compartment doors "to ensure privacy," touchscreens, and compartment sensors designed to simplify order loading and accuracy.

5 – McDonald's — $3.6 million

The world's largest burger chain recorded $48.7 billion in systemwide sales last year across its 13,444 U.S. locations. According to QSR, McDonald's "is experiencing a renaissance of sorts thanks to its overall transformation plan, Accelerating the Arches, which calls for modernization, emphasis on core menu items, and the three Ds—digital, delivery, and drive-thru."

The renaissance era is ongoing, as this summer the golden arches got an extra sales boost from the explosive success of Grimace's Birthday promotion, which quickly went viral. In Q2, McDonald's same-store sales grew a whopping 11.7%. On a July earnings call, CEO Chris Kempczinksi put it plainly, "This quarter, if I'm being honest, the theme was Grimace." Food Institute Focus

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The Grimace Effect – How Marketing & Memes Drive Sales

When was Grimace "born?"

In November 1971, McDonald's debuted Evil Grimace, a purple monster with four arms that he used to steal shakes, hoarding them underground like Gollum and his Precious. A year later he debuted again as Grimace, this time with a standard set of limbs, still purple, less hostile, amiable if a little aloof. In 2010, a McDonald's spokesperson said he was a sentient taste bud, and a 2014 tweet from McDonald's described him as the "embodiment of a milkshake or a tastebud" according to "Grimace lore," from wherever that ancient grimoire of the Arches resides. And this summer, McDonald's ran a promotion for his (its?) 51st birthday, which TikTokkers turned into a bizarre, often hilarious, occasionally horrifying trend of post-Grimace-shake pandemonium, leaving Grimace well-wishers often smeared in purple neon light and sticky congealing shake detritus while sprawled under overpasses, floating down streams, or even being dragged offscreen from the scene of the Grime.

At one point, the #GrimaceShake and #HBDGrimace were the top trends on Twitter and TikTok, spurring thousands (tens of thousands?) of shake sales every day. Zooming out a bit, the McDonald's marketing department created a fairly milquetoast promotion in the Grimace Birthday Meal, but combined with the wild alchemy of organic, consumer-generated content, the confetti (and sales dollars) truly fell; instead of toddlers begging Mom and Dad for a Grimace meal, the world's most recognizable restaurant found sales spurred by tweens, teens, influencers, and more who needed the shake to make the video and participate in one of the more memorable marketing zeitgeists of the mobile, meme-able era.

The promotion worked; in the second quarter, McDonald's same-store sales grew a whopping 11.7%. On a July earnings call, McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinksi said, "This quarter, if I'm being honest, the theme was Grimace," and beneath the aw-shucksian statement to investors, Kempczinski was 100% accurate—the Grimace Birthday Meal absolutely dominated, deliciously.

How? And why? And what can brands learn from it?

The Curious Case of the Grimace Shake

It is often said that art imitates life, and it should also be said that Grimace was conjured up by a marketing department as one of many characters to represent McDonald's and to sell food to children and their families, so though he may qualify as art, higher existential questions regarding Grimace's Promethean origins (and his birthday) are best left alone. Five decades later, nobody—least of all McDonald's—could have predicted the not strictly PG circumstances poor Grimace was subjected to in June. If 100 marketing departments came up with 100 ideas, it is not certain they'd have hit upon something as inane, as harmless, as downright funny, disturbing, as weird and wondrous and wildly successful as the Grimace Shake horror videos and the sales boon that followed. For it was not the Grimace Birthday Meal alone that drove sales and pleased investors; it was the unexpected support via TikTok and YouTube.

And to make a Happy Birthday Grimace video, one needed a Grimace Shake.

"The market reflects the current culture, which plays a huge role into how these brands ultimately decide to make any changes," said David Triana, account executive at PR firm Delight Labs. "In turn, especially with apps like TikTok, mascots can cause a brand and/or their message to go viral. As we've seen with Grimace this summer, a mascot can create a trend and make it spread like wildfire."

"Traditionally, food mascots have had identifiable motivations and back stories," said Brian Brown, president and chief creative officer at Ingredient, to The Food Institute, liking ambassadors such as Lucky the Leprechaun (Lucky Charms) and Trix Rabbit (Trix) to Wile E. Coyote, say, and the Road Runner.

"Other mascots are reimagined"—as Grimace was 50 years ago—"in a more irreverent way. Irreverence and irony are attributes that resonate with millennials and Gen Z in particular," Brown added.

That Grimace's irreverence was reimagined so vividly helped drive the Grimace Birthday Meal wholly without the addition of any McDonald's-endorsed Grimace ads that mentioned or even came close to the Grimace horror videos. Here's a wild fact about that: per new data from MediaRadar, McDonald's overall U.S. ad spend had fallen 19% year-over-year to $156 million, driven largely by cuts to TV spend. The virality of the Grimace Shake, however, helped counterbalance the decrease, ensuring McDonald's stays top-of-mind with its customers.

And when its customers do the work of the marketing team for them, brands like McDonald's can prosper.

Not Just a Shake—An Identity

What's most curious about the Grimace Shake is that the mascot didn't create the trend; it merely provided the sugary-good, besprinkled medium. And as July belonged to Barbie, June surely belonged to Grimace. Grimace is an amorphous blob; Barbie is and has always been whatever a child wants her to be. Both, in other words, are perfect mediums for summer fun on which the values of the culture can be imprinted. In Grimace's case—and the case with the #GrimaceShake horror videos—those values were harmless, delicious fun. That consumers associated those with Grimace, of all characters—and with McDonald's as a whole—speaks purple-tinted volumes about its place in our culture and the outsize influence McDonald's wields in the food/bev space.

"What works is creating a connection with the audience and, if it's a long-established brand, not shying away from nostalgia," Triana continued. "What doesn't work, especially in the case of a mascot, is creating something that is offensive or insensitive, and doesn't accurately represent the brand's message or values."

One of the most fascinating aspects about the Grimace Shake and the nostalgia-fueled millions McDonald's raked in is that the movement was fueled by a nostalgia for a character many of the creators didn't grow up with, at least not in the sense that children of the 70s, 80s, and 90s did. And McDonald's, to its credit, simply let the sprinkles fall where they may—if that meant all over the sidewalk in the dark next to another spilled shake, well, consumers always knew where to get another one. And to Triana's point, most of the videos were explicitly not offensive or insensitive; bizarre, yes, beguiling, surely, but often with the same sensibility—this is fun. We're having fun. A trip to McDonald's to get a Grimace Shake is fun, and no marketing department could have pushed that kind of content in the organic, radical, wildfire way that it spread from the consumers themselves. Like the setup to a knock-knock joke, we all knew the direction the videos were headed. That the punchlines were as creative as they were lent further power to the punch; always a shake, spilled; always a laugh, had.

"For marketers in the F&B space, humor must be taken in stride and brands have to be ready to respond quickly to potential spikes in trends (even if they are not what you expected)," said Bianca Hanson, marketing director at Uncorked Creative, to The Food Institute.

"Mars retired their M&M ‘spokescandies' only to quickly bring them back. Why? Their recognizable, friendly nature was too important to bury," she added. "Planters retired Mr. Peanut only to replace him with another peanut because who is Planters without their nutty mascot? Having a mascot that makes consumers laugh and hit ‘share' can be a saving grace in the oversaturated market."

Looking back, the Grimace Shake really had it all, and did it all, for McDonald's. It lent credence to some of the brand's oldest ambassadors and to the values they represent; it captured the imaginations of consumers young and old, new and experienced; it went viral in the way few corporate products do; most importantly, the Grimace Shake crusade was led by consumers in the name of farce and not by marketers in the name of consumerism. Since there's no accounting for taste, the Grimace Shake achieved, in many ways, Susan Sontag's description of camp, as the masses "[turned their backs] on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment;" consumers simply associated the frissons of hilarity with a berry-flavored shake that proffered outsize value to those who bought it and hit record, churning the engines of American commerce at the end of what is hopefully a season of inflation, frustration, and for many consumers and businesses alike, economic strife.

"The connoisseur of Camp [finds pleasure] in the coarsest, commonest pleasures, in the arts of the masses," Sontag wrote. Is there a better description for contemporary social media—and the Grimace videos that live in perpetuity—than that? In this case, McDonald's was the beneficiary from the viral arts of the masses and Grimace the purple, profitable portrait from and on behalf of McDonald's. And like controversial art and wildfire food trends, nobody saw it coming.

And it might not even be over. To capture the future, McDonald's is once again looking to the past. Fresh off Grimace's birthday and its Q2 earnings report, McDonald's announced it will test a spinoff restaurant, CosMc's, in a handful of sites in early 2024. More plans will be revealed at its investor day in December. CosMc was a McDonaldland mascot who appeared in the 80s and 90s, an alien who craves McDonald's food.

Audacious, sublime, organic—these are the hallmarks of profit for brands wise enough to be confident in their values and lucky enough to thread the needle between quality-controlled seriousness and edge-of-the-internet frivolity. One only wonders what will happen as Halloween (and the beginning of Q4) approaches and what next summer's earnings report will hold for the golden arches. Food Institute Focus

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Store News:

Chipotle Mexican Grill partnered with Avocados from Peru to offer free guacamole on National Avocado Day, which occurred July 31. Chipotle Rewards members could get free guac on the side or atop an entrée when they used a digital-only code at checkout on the app or website, reported The Packer (July 26). Full Story

Taco Bell launched a Grilled Cheese Dipping Taco August 3. The menu item plays off the birria taco trend and features slow-braised shredded beef, creamy jalapeno sauce, and cheddar, mozzarella, and pepper jack cheeses. Full Story

James Donaldson, a YouTube star known as MrBeast, has sued his food delivery business partner, saying the company sacrificed quality in its bid for rapid expansion. Donaldson's Beast Investments LLC sued for breach of contract, asking a federal judge to terminate his business relationship with Virtual Dining Concepts, reported Bloomberg (July 31). Full Story

DoorDash Inc. reported a record number of delivery orders in the second quarter, showing consumers' commitment to takeout despite rising prices. Customers placed 532 million orders in the quarter and the gross value of those orders rose 26% to $16.5 billion, reported Bloomberg (Aug. 2). Full Story

Starbucks is targeting a new growth opportunity: small towns. Executives told investors that there's "real headroom" and opportunity in rural America as the chain is poised to overtake Subway's 20,000 domestic units to become the most prolific restaurant chain in the U.S., reported Restaurant Business (Aug. 2). Full Story

The fast-casual Back Yard Burgers chain has declared bankruptcy. The chain once had nearly 200 restaurants, but it recently closed several locations and filed for Chapter 11, reported Restaurant Business (July 28). Full Story

Pizza chain Sbarro is growing nearly a decade after filing for bankruptcy. The chain embraced what it is: a pizza-by-the-slice brand that does best in high-traffic areas, reported Eat This, Not That! (Aug. 2). Full Story

Pollo Tropical parent company Fiesta Restaurant Group was acquired by Authentic Restaurant Brands. The all-cash transaction valued the company at $225 million, reported MarketWatch (Aug. 7). Full Story

Tim Hortons, known for its coffee and breakfast foods, is increasingly targeting the lunch crowd as remote work puts a dent in breakfast demand. The Canadian chain's traffic in its home market is still lagging behind 2019 trends in part because of fewer visits in the morning as people go to offices less than before the pandemic, reported Bloomberg (Aug. 8). Full Story

Burger King added Royal Chicken Wraps to its menu beginning August 14, available in three flavors: classic, spicy, and honey mustard, reported GMA (Aug. 9). Full Story

Quiznos has launched the Big Fat Greek Sub, a gyro-style item. The sandwich features certified halal, tzatziki sauce, marinated tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, and banana peppers. Full Story

Wow Bao has announced a partnership with Walmart, the world's largest retailer, to expand its business exponentially. The steamed bun company will move from 1,000 stores to over 4,000 in the U.S. market. Wow Bao is about to celebrate its 20th year in business, reported Supermarket News (Aug. 14). Full Story

Fogo de Chão was acquired by Bain Capital in a $1.1 billion deal, including debt. Prior owner Rhone Capital took the chain private for $560 million in 2018 and previously explored an IPO for the brand, reported Reuters (Aug. 15). Full Story

Chick-fil-A will add a Honey Pepper Pimento Chicken Sandwich to its menu, the first-ever update to the original sandwich in the brand's history, in addition to a new Caramel Crumble Milkshake for fall, reported GMA (Aug. 16). Full Story

Executives on the Move:

Nothing Bundt Cakes has named Dolf Berle as its CEO. Berle is a former Topgolf and Dave & Buster's executive. Full Story

P.F. Chang's announced Damola Adamolekun stepped down as CEO and the restaurant chain has appointed Rohit Manocha as interim CEO. P.F. Chang's said it's working with an independent recruitment firm to conduct a search for a successor. Full Story

Dutch Bros has named Christine Barone CEO, following the announcement that Joth Ricci will step down at the end of the year following a transition period, reported Biz Women (Aug. 9). Full Story


The Future of Liquid Packaging: Harnessing Automation in the Manufacturing Sector

The fast-paced evolution of technology has continuously redefined multiple sectors and the food manufacturing industry is no exception. One of the areas of innovation is in the liquid packaging processes. Liquid food products, whether sauces, beverages, or dairy items, require specific packaging techniques to ensure safety, longevity, and aesthetic appeal. This article delves into the future of liquid packaging, specifically focusing on the rising influence of automation.

Understanding Automation in Liquid Packaging

Automation in liquid packaging represents a transformative shift in the food manufacturing industry. By utilizing cutting-edge technology, these automated systems significantly increase production rates, ensure consistent packaging quality, and reduce the risk of workplace accidents. This paves the way for higher output, increased profitability, better product quality, and a safer working environment, positioning it as a vital component of the industry's future. Here are the benefits of automation:

Improved Efficiency: Automated packaging machinery is designed to perform tasks at high speeds with minimal human intervention. This translates to increased production rates and efficient utilization of resources.

Enhanced Accuracy: Automation significantly reduces the likelihood of human errors, ensuring consistency in the volume of liquid-filled, seal quality, and packaging weight.

Worker Safety: With automation handling high-risk tasks, workers are less exposed to dangerous conditions, reducing the potential for workplace accidents.

Innovative Trends in Automated Liquid Packaging

Innovative trends like the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), increased use of robotics, and a greater emphasis on sustainability are set to redefine the landscape of liquid packaging in the food manufacturing industry. Here's how these technologies will impact the future of liquid packaging:

Integration of AI and Machine Learning: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) can optimize various aspects of liquid packaging, such as predictive maintenance, quality control, and process optimization. These technologies can enable predictive algorithms that foresee equipment failure, saving downtime and maintenance costs.

Use of Robotics: The adoption of robotic arms in packaging lines will increase. Capable of performing complex tasks with precision and speed, robotics will handle everything from capping bottles to arranging packaged products on pallets.

Sustainability: Automation will enable the efficient use of resources, reducing waste and environmental impact. It will also allow the implementation of innovative, sustainable packaging materials that would be challenging to handle manually.

Implications for the Food Manufacturing Industry

The rise of automation in liquid packaging is expected to trigger significant changes in the food manufacturing industry. This shift will influence diverse aspects from quality assurance and cost management to production volume. By transforming traditional practices, automation holds the potential to redefine industry standards and usher in a new era of efficiency and innovation.

Quality Assurance: By reducing human error and offering precise control over packaging processes, automation will enhance product quality and consistency, building consumer trust and loyalty.

Cost Management: Initial investment in automation may be high, but in the long run, it significantly reduces labor costs, material waste, and downtime due to equipment failures, translating into substantial savings.

Increased Production Volume: With higher efficiency and speed, automated packaging lines can meet the growing demand for food products, especially in rapidly urbanizing regions.

Overcoming Challenges in the Adoption of Automation

Embracing automation in liquid packaging brings numerous benefits, but the path to full adoption is challenging. Several challenges need to be proactively addressed to unlock the full potential of automation and chart a successful course for the future. These include:

Skill Gap: The transition to automated technology requires workers to acquire new skills. Investment in training and education will be key to successfully harnessing the benefits of automation.

Data Security: As automation depends heavily on digital data, protecting this information from potential cyber threats will be crucial.

Adapting to Regulatory Changes: With the incorporation of automation, new regulations may arise. Businesses will need to stay ahead of these changes to remain compliant.

Embracing the Future of Liquid Packaging

The future of liquid packaging in the food manufacturing industry will be molded by automation. It's a catalyst for transformation that stands at the crossroads of innovation, efficiency, and sustainability. 

Through automation, manufacturers can quickly meet evolving consumer demands, maintain competitiveness in a dynamic market, and contribute positively to environmental sustainability. It also creates new opportunities for introducing innovative packaging designs and materials, stimulating creativity in packaging solutions.

As we look toward the future of liquid packaging, the influence of automation cannot be overstated. With its ability to increase efficiency, enhance accuracy, improve worker safety, and foster sustainability, automation represents a fundamental shift in the industry's landscape. Challenges in adoption exist, but with adequate preparation, training, and regulatory adherence, these can be solved. Ultimately, automation will help to redefine standards in the food manufacturing industry. Food Institute Focus


June Sees Upswing in Restaurant Sales

Comparative restaurant sales increased 3.6% in June when compared to June 2022, representing their highest levels since March, according to guestXM by Black Box Intelligence. Comparable traffic declined 2.2% during the period.

Traffic growth has been negative for 10 of the last 12 months, with the only months with growing guest (January and February) lapping 2022 when the spread of the Omicron variant keeping people from visiting restaurants. Full Story

Selected Results:

McDonald's beat Wall Street's revenue estimates for its second-quarter earnings and revenue, driven largely by the Grimace Birthday Meal as same-store sales grew 11.7%, reported CNBC (July 27). Full Story

Subway's same-store sales increased 9.3% in North America in the first half of 2023 and continues to generate sales growth. Sales have increased for 10 straight quarters, thanks to a boost in digital sales. Subway continues to search for a buyer, reported Restaurant Business (July 25). Full Story

sweetgreen reported its first profitable quarter as a public company in adjusted earnings as automated restaurants and subscription loyalty programs are showing potential to attract more customers. Same-store sales were up 3%, though the progress still missed Wall Street's expectations and stock prices tumbled, reported Restaurant Business (July 28). Full Story

Yum Brands missed its revenue estimates despite soaring KFC sales. Though it topped Wall Street expectations, the Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC parent company fell short of revenue expectations despite KFC same-store sales rising 13%, fueled by demand in China, its largest market, reported CNBC (Aug. 2). Full Story

Starbucks Corp. reported a 7% increase in North American same-store sales, falling below market expectations. The company noted sales in China rebounded sharply, rising 46% in the third quarter, reported Reuters (Aug. 1). Full Story

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