Nearly half of Americans insist on drive-thrus: survey

Nearly half of Americans opine in a recent survey that they would avoid a store — any store, apparently — that doesn’t have a drive-thru. 

The finding comes from Dutch Bros, a beloved drive-thru coffee chain based in Oregon. The Bros commissioned a random survey of 2,000 Americans in July by the market researcher OnePoll. 

Americans love a drive-thru, and the pandemic seems to have sweetened their taste for takeout. Much of the nation migrated to pickup and delivery in the peak months of COVID-19, and surveys suggest the preference endures. 

The Dutch Bros poll found that customers favor the drive-thru experience to in-store shopping by a 2-to-1 margin, to the extent that they have a preference. 

The typical customer in the survey visits a drive-thru three or four times a week for fast food.  

Restaurant lore tells that restaurateur Dave Thomas popularized the pickup window around 1970 at Wendy’s, and that the first drive-thru customers didn’t know quite what to do when they reached it.

The pickup window liberated Americans to dress for dinner much as they would for a trip to the mailbox. No one was likely to judge their wardrobe choices, their conversational skills or their table manners. The family station wagon was a gastronomic safe space.  

When Dutch Bros pollsters asked why customers prefer the drive-thru, large numbers selected decidedly antisocial replies: “Not having to talk to employees as much.” “Getting to stay in my car.” “Less judgment.” 

Another recent survey of more than 1,000 diners by US Foods found that 57 percent prefer takeout or delivery, while 43 percent favor restaurant eating. Top reasons for taking food home include convenience, the prospect of combining dining and Netflix, and the aforementioned freedom to “wear comfortable clothes.”  

The pandemic took a grievous toll on the restaurant business. A Washington Post analysis found a net loss of 72,700 restaurants and bars in 2020.  

The survivors have coped with the pandemic’s culinary aftershocks by scaling back hours. The typical restaurant has reduced its weekly schedule by 6.4 hours since 2019, according to a 2022 report from Restaurant Business Magazine.  

Full-service “casual dining” restaurants, such as Denny’s, IHOP and Texas Roadhouse, had it worse, cutting service by 8.9 hours per week on average.  

Where, then, to steer your drive-thru business? A discerning customer might review the latest report from Intouch Insight, a customer-experience specialist that publishes an annual Drive-Thru Study.  

Here are some findings from the most recent analysis, in 2022: 

KFC ranks first in total drive-thru time, from arrival to exit, at 5 minutes and 3 seconds.  

Chick-fil-A ranks highest for “average cars in line,” nearly five, which sounds bad, until you consider that it bespeaks popularity.  

Arby’s and McDonald’s lead the field in accurate orders. The largest share of order errors come in the beverage category. (“Ew. Is that diet?”) 

In customer satisfaction, Chick-fil-A and Carl’s Jr. tie for first. 

And for food quality, the top picks are Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell.