Meals by wheels: UK drive-through booms as brands invest in new sites
Drive-through restaurants used to be a US-inspired novelty but a big increase in custom during the pandemic means money is pouring into new UK sites, with even upmarket names looking to serve food through car windows for the first time.
New property research suggests that demand for drive-throughs has increased by 25% post-Covid with restaurant chains looking to open a total of 200 sites a year. The clamour comes as established names such as McDonald’s and Burger King face competition from North American brands such as Tim Hortons, famous for its coffee and doughnuts, and burger chain Wendy’s.
The growing trend for ordering burgers, fizzy drinks and coffee from our cars, which comes at a time when the UK is trying to reduce car use and obesity, is spreading beyond its traditional heartland of Big Macs and chicken nuggets.
The “healthy” fast food chain Leon, with its fish finger wraps and baked fries, and premium burger restaurant chain Five Guys are due to open their first drive-through sites in Gildersome, West Yorkshire, and Stockton-on-Tees in County Durham, respectively.
An extra 40m visits were made to the UK’s estimated 2,000 drive-throughs in the year to April, taking the number to almost 490m, according to the market researcher NPD. The gain was at the expense of sit-down dining in fast food restaurants where custom fell off a cliff due to lockdown restrictions and closures. It found that customers place larger than average orders at a drive-through, spending £6.16 per person, compared with £5.91 for walk ins.
Drive-throughs have fallen in and out of favour with Britons since McDonald’s opened the first one in Fallowfield, Manchester in the 1980s. They were back in vogue before the pandemic but since lockdown demand has surged, said Thomas Rose, a co-founder of the real estate consultancy P-Three which compiled the research. He explains that operators like them because they generate high sales and require fewer staff than a sit-in property.
Demand for sites “has probably increased 25% post-Covid as we see a shift to more convenience”, said Rose. “There are around 200 sites per year required by operators. The pressure for sites is significant and competitive bidding for the best locations between operators is becoming more common, pushing values higher.”
The lockdowns of the past year, which forced restaurants to close to diners, prompted many Britons to switch to home-delivery services such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats as well as drive-throughs and become increasingly accustomed to using apps to place their orders.
A drive-through is another “quick way of getting food where you don’t have to sit down and eat it with a knife and fork and a waiter hovering over you”, said restaurant industry consultant Peter Backman.
“There are a number of reasons why people eat out of home. One is to have a really great time and another is they can’t be bothered to cook. That used to be satisfied by supermarket ready meals – you shoved it in a microwave and job done. There is a space for meals that are easy to prepare and consume and are not too expensive.”
In recent years other high-street food brands ranging from Costa and Starbucks to Greggs and Krispy Kreme have opened drive-throughs in a bid to expand their reach beyond a high street where footfall is in decline. Drive-through sites are also generally cheaper.
“We’ve had drive-throughs for over 30 years and it has not really taken off except for a small number of brands,” continued Backman. “I’m a little bit sceptical because the reason it works in America is they’ve got the space and a very car-driven culture. People will quite naturally drive 20 minutes to get a hamburger whereas that’s probably a bit more of an ask in this country.”
After the severe financial turmoil caused by the pandemic and now severe staff shortages, food chains have “got to try everything because something might work”, added Backman. “These are very interesting, very challenging times.”
In the US, where visiting a drive-through is more popular than home-delivery services, health and environmental concerns have led to moves to halt the construction of new sites in some cities. Rose thinks UK planners should think hard about giving drive-throughs (in towns and city centres and on retail parks as opposed to on motorways) the go-ahead.
“Drive-throughs are the antithesis of the community spirit upon which the revival of many UK communities depends,” said Rose of a dining format that encourages people to “remain separated from each other in their vehicles and travel no further than the collection point and back home”.
“There’s no question drive-throughs are exceptionally convenient, especially for young families, shift workers and those on long journeys. However, that convenience comes at an environmental and societal cost. I can’t see that it is a price worth paying.”